(Copyright © 2009)

I’ve posted about consciousness being situational in nature (Reflection 80), about the left-brain interpreter module deciding the meaning of events (Reflection 86), about idioms of consciousness providing ways of being in the world (Reflection 124), and about elixirs of consciousness adjusting “reality” to our way of thinking (Reflection 127). What I’ve not mentioned is where such activities might be seated in the brain, for if they are aspects of consciousness as I claim, that’s where their stories would necessarily begin. It strikes me that these four modes of consciousness have something in common, but I’m not sure what that something might be. This post is about my search to find out. As usual, it points to discovery through coincidence or by accident—and beyond that, to the mind revealing itself in strange ways.

My first step was to consolidate my thoughts on situations, interpreters, idioms, and elixirs in one place to make comparison easier. How to do that? I thought of a matrix laid out with the four aspects of consciousness lined up in columns and possible functional substrates listed in rows down the side. The word matrix stems from the Latin meaning a female animal used for breeding—basically, the female principle in reproductive mode. That’s just what I needed, something to stir my creativity. I listed the functions of each aspect as briefly as I could:

  • Situations—provide the context or framework of consciousness
  • Interpreters—develop meaningful stories or narratives accounting, rightly or wrongly, for awareness
  • Idioms—are ways of being in the world according to one acquired discipline or another
  • Elixirs (fudge factors)—adjust understanding to accord with fundamental beliefs in order to produce a desired effect.

Reading what I had written, I felt a jab of anxiety. What could they possibly have in common? Nothing sprang to mind. So I went on, off the top of my head listing broad functional regions of the brain where facets of consciousness might arise or at least be involved: perception, conception, memory, expectancy, feeling, planning, judging, speaking, acting, and so on. Then I took an hour to break down each of the four aspects in terms of what I knew about different functional areas of the brain. And went to bed. This on the day before my son’s birthday.

For two hours, I lie awake in the dark, wondering what to do. Basically, worrying. It all started so innocently. Days ago, I’d left a message on my son’s answering machine, asking how he’d like to celebrate his birthday. I said Carole and I would be happy to provide a floating meal to be eaten whenever and wherever he chose. If Friday didn’t work, maybe Sunday. Just give me a call. Days rolled by with no response. His birthday is tomorrow. What to do? After installing a bilge pump in my boat, I stop by my son’s workplace. It turns out both his mom and I (long divorced) are pestering him about his birthday. He’s working toward a show on Saturday and feels cornered with no place to hide. So he disappears by not taking calls. Anyway, after encouragement from his wife, my son agrees that Monday is doable. We agree to meet at the boathouse at noon. He’ll see if his brother can come. I call Carole to ask if Monday is OK with her. It is. I will bring turkey loaf, mashed potatoes, and ice cream; she’ll bring asparagus and bake a cake. So it seems settled.

Yet here I am at 2:00 in the morning, worrying how to pull it all together. Catsup. I don’t use it, so don’t have any. Buy catsup. Bring salt and pepper. How keep the turkey loaf and mashers warm while rowing across to the island, the ice cream cold? How many potatoes do I need? What if rains? With the battery for the bilge pump in place, how can I fit two other people in my boat? Where will I brace my feet without jarring the pump? And that’s only for starters. I progress to more serious anxieties, dwelling on times things hadn’t worked out in the past. I spend two hours reviewing my life—marriages, divorces, relationships. And in the back of my mind—the consciousness matrix and what it has to tell me. I run through the four aspects of consciousness, their possible placement in the brain. Everything is problematic—life is problematic. Eventually I get back to sleep.

When I woke up, I saw immediately that the four aspects of consciousness all deal with attention, arousal, and anxiety. They are all ways of putting energy into coping with stress. Situations are situations precisely because their parts are at odds, and so kindle anxiety. Our interpreter modules provide answers to questions that stir anxiety (I recall a write-up of Michael Gazzaniga’s work in which a split-brain patient begins his answer to a question about his interpretation of an experimental situation by saying, “Oh, that’s easy” or something to that effect, which I now see as compensating for anxiety). Idioms of consciousness focus attention on discrete topics, reducing anxiety by narrowing the field of concern. And elixirs of consciousness serve to deal with anxiety more than truth, as students are anxious to fulfill assignments by coming-up with right answers by hook or by crook. Shelley Smithson’s piece in the June 29, 2009 issue of The Nation, “Radioactive Revival in New Mexico,” provides this example of using God as a magic elixir to help things turn out as desired:

[Marita] Noon, . . . a Christian motivational speaker before becoming a self-proclaimed “advocate for energy,” says God put uranium in New Mexico so that Americans can wean themselves from Middle Eastern oil and Russian uranium.

Consciousness appears to be largely a means of dealing with situations in which doubt, uncertainty, and consequent anxiety predominate. The amygdala is involved in each of the aspects of consciousness I am focusing on, shaping relevant strategies for converting motivating stress into productive behavior. In The Emotional Brain (Simon & Schuster, 1996), Joseph LeDoux writes:

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning (page 168).

And it is certainly the emotionally meaningful aspects of consciousness we pay special attention to and, thanks to the hippocampus, remember. As I have said, consciousness is given us to solve novel problems, including those in a cultural, not natural, context. I have reached that conclusion the long way round, by using my late-night anxiety as a means of studying anxiety itself. Anxiety about loose ends hanging from my wish to celebrate my son’s birthday kept me awake. So anxiety was an integral part of my mind at the time.

Schools are hotbeds of anxiety. Every test, lesson, and assignment is a source of stress. Even sports fire people up, both players and spectators, all traceable to anxiety. What we learn is not content so much as how to deal with tensions that force us to learn how to proceed through difficult tasks that upset us at the time. Through exposure to various subject disciplines, we learn to cope with related life situations. We acquire the idioms educated people use to surmount their problems. We learn how to do research, how to listen, how to express ourselves, how to solve problems—how to accomplish tasks others assign to us. All based on suffering anxiety and applying techniques that diminish it.

Sitting down to write a post, I am nothing if not anxious. Usually I am anxious in a way shaped as curiosity about an issue I am involved with. But every creative endeavor starts with stage fright of one sort or another. Am I up to the task? Do I have the skill, energy, and desire to work this through? I remember Hector Berlioz writing in his autobiography about dreaming a piece of music in specific detail, but knowing how difficult it would be to ever get it performed, not writing it down. The music came to him in his sleep two nights in a row—then never again, scuttled by anxiety over the trouble it would cause later on.

When dirty dishes pile up in the sink, we become active in a constructive way—or else make ourselves scarce. These are two different ways of dealing with stress, by coping or refusing to cope at all, by fighting or fleeing—as I fled from the lady with the torn jaw and cheek on a street in London 50 years ago (see Reflection 119: Man and Dog). Our amygdalas help us decide which strategy to select. Schooling trains us to face into challenges directly. When we tire of that, we go to the movies—the funnier, the sexier and more violent, the better to distract us from our worries. We can learn from the emotional fixes we get into, or maybe get high or drunk. We can deal, or try to escape.

I heard Terry Gross interview Woody Allen on Fresh Air this week. His view is that life consists of one anxiety-producing situation after another. Each of his films deals with a different episode of the human condition as he sees it:

TERRY GROSS: So, may I ask, what are some of the real problems that making movies distracts you from?

WOODY ALLEN: Well, they distract me from the same problems that you face or that anyone faces, you know, the uncertainty of life and inevitability of aging and death, and death of loved ones, and mass killings and starvations and holocausts, and not just the manmade carnage but the existential position that you’re in, you know, being in a world where you have no idea what’s going on, why you’re here or what possible meaning your life can have and the conclusion that you come to after a while, that there is really no meaning to it, and it’s just a random, meaningless event, and these are pretty depressing thoughts. And if you spend much time thinking about them, not only can’t you resolve them, but you sit frozen in your seat. You can’t even get up to have your lunch.

So it’s better to, you know, distract yourself, and people distract themselves creatively, you know, in the arts. They distract themselves in business or by following baseball teams and worrying over batting averages and who wins the pennant, and these are all things that you do and focus on rather than sit home and worry.

Woody Allen is a good example of someone who reduces anxiety by immersing himself in his work—adopting a way of being in the world, an idiom, that he has the drive and skill to maintain while working on exactly the same types of problems that he finds so overwhelming:

WOODY ALLEN: [M]aking a movie is a great distraction from the real agonies of the world. It’s an overwhelmingly, you know, difficult thing to do.

You’ve got to deal with actors and temperaments and scripts and second acts and third acts and camera work and costumes and sets and editing and music, and you know, there’s enough in that to keep you distracted almost all the time. And if I’m locked into what would appear to be a painful situation because half my movie works, let’s say, and the whole second half of it doesn’t work, or a character in my movie is terrible, you don’t believe the love story or something, these are all problems that are, or generally are, solvable with reshooting, with editing, with thinking, diagnosing what’s wrong. And they distract you from the real problems of life, which are unsolvable and very painful problems.

Also in the problems of moviemaking, if you don’t solve your problem, all that happens to you is that your movie bombs. So the movie is terrible. So people don’t come to see it. Critics don’t like it. The public doesn’t like it. This is hardly a terrible punishment in life compared to what you’re given out in the real world of human existence.

Working our way through anxiety-producing situations may be the essence of life if it teaches us how to accurately diagnose situations, train our interpretive facilities to identify what’s really going on, adopt idioms giving us mastery over a small slice of life, or develop cons and scams for beating the system one way or another. Consciousness offers us a range of such powerful survival techniques to apply in particular cases. Members of congress try most of them—inevitably disillusioning their constituents by the deviousness of their means for maintaining their public image while abusing the power of their office. But there are no good guys—or gals—it turns out, only those with a will to live and thrive. In the big leagues, innocents, idealists, and dreamers get eaten alive. No one is larger than life, for life is run by consciousness, and that as everyone knows can get pretty seamy.

Am I more jaded than the next person? Naive, perhaps, but not jaded. I haven’t given up on humanity just yet, thought I have my doubts. I still believe consciousness is worth studying, but it sometimes takes a strong stomach. I figure that if our record is ever to improve, we are going to have to come to terms with ourselves. Evidence points to the fact that we are selfish bastards always seeking to advance our personal cause at others’ expense. More likely, we are doing the best we can under extremely difficult circumstances to figure out what is going on in and around ourselves. In truth, I think we are half  babes in the woods, half hungry wolves—innocence and cunning wrapped in the same fleece.

Besides anxiety signaled by the amygdala, other neural-based features shared by situations, interpreter modules, and both idioms and elixirs of consciousness include: a strong sense of cohesion through time, expectancy, reliance on sensory feedback, executive judgment and decision-making, motor planning, and execution of specific behaviors. Thus the amygdala relays messages to several higher areas of cerebral cortex, which ultimately shape and execute behavior, and look to subsequent feedback from appropriate sensory areas. This is an extremely rough sketch, but to me the keystone of this activity is the potential danger or opportunity available to the conscious organism as signaled by the amygdala. The follow-up details appear to be a function of individual judgment and decision-making based on learning, prior experience, and current expectations.

Consciousness, it seems to me then, is not based on prowess and ego so much as on stress and anxiety. If that is true, it would appear to be one of our best defenders within cultural situations which natural evolution could never anticipate. In rising to consciousness, each of us is on her own, doing the best she can to cope with situations that might well undo her. Going solo, we have a great many options for dealing with such situations. Diagnosing more-or-less accurately what’s going on in a given situation is one of them. Interpreting ever-changing relationships in meaningful terms is another. Adopting the idiom and special expertise of one favored discipline is a third. And applying magic elixirs or fudge factors in order to view situations in terms of a predetermined ideology no matter what is a fourth option among others I have not considered in this post.

In dealing with personal fear and anxiety, evolution hands the choice to consciousness—namely us. Whether we deal on the basis of greed, faith, evidence, prejudice, or aesthetics is up to each of us personally. In selecting the choice we prefer, we reveal who we are. The scary part is realizing that how we choose determines the wiring of our brains by strengthening the synapses involved. We become the creatures of our prior choices. Which is why growing up is so hard—think of the child soldiers of Africa. “Survival of the fittest” is shorthand for those who make the best choices under the circumstances being more apt to make it than those who select poor choices for whatever reason. Life requires endlessly dealing with anxiety as evolution intended. If we flub-dub around, we are apt to be dead.

Peregrine-72

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

A lot of robins came through Bar Harbor this spring, more than usual. Everywhere I went in Acadia, I saw robins standing, darting, flying low through the woods as if they were hermit thrushes. Even through my gate I saw robins—one male robin—where there are almost no worms. Something’s up with robins this year, I thought to myself. As something’s up with lilacs and apple blossoms. Could be the wet spring. Anyway, I took note as I always do of events that deviate from my expectations.

On May 24th I saw a robin—female this time (gray head, not black)—tugging at a stalk of dead grass just beyond my gate. Next morning I saw strands of grass hanging from a crotch where limbs diverge in the apple tree out my window. She flew in and out of the tree, bringing more grass each time. That day, Memorial Day, she worked hard and finished the nest by late afternoon. She flew in and out of the nest all week, tweaking it here and there with her bill, getting it just right, fluffing her feathers, settling down facing every direction—a real custom fit. On Friday the 29th, I saw male and female together, flitting about, mating. She immediately flew to the nest and settled in, becoming a fixture out my window for the next thirteen days.

I checked on her every hour or so through the window. She’d be facing different directions, but she was always there, alwaysRobin-5-29-09alert. What’s going on in her mind with all that time on her wings? I wondered. She was becoming one with the universe, I knew that. Her universe in that apple tree. I figured she learned every twig and leaf by heart. Once a flock of grackles landed on the grass and seemed to head for the tree. Suddenly, like a superhero, the male robin flew out of the sky and stood against the grackles with the tree at his back. They got the message and flew off.

Which left me wondering about other threats the pair faced. The nest was only six feet off the ground, so easy for any cat or rodent to reach. And both lived in the vicinity. One woman where I live has a black cat with yellow eyes—you all know that cat. It loves to slink through the bushes and stalk birds, but doesn’t catch one very often. But a bird on the nest? Piece of cake, and especially the nestlings soon to hatch. Two kinds of squirrel—gray and red—scour the neighborhood, along with a chipmunk. And then there are the crows who wake before dawn to make sure every other creature is also awake—including me.

I began checking for predators every time I eyed little mother. I’d see the chipmunk scoot from under my car, or a red squirrel near the spruce trees up by the road—and saw them not so much for themselves but now in relation to the nest. One evening I saw old yellow eyes on her haunches near my car and tried to deflect the evil eye right back at her. One thing about cats, they never get the message. Yesterday I checked in the afternoon and the female was not on her nest. She takes a few minutes off now and then, so I wasn’t worried. I couldn’t tell if she’d laid any eggs yet, but not knowing how long after mating that would be, again I wasn’t worried. But then I did worry. A big crow landed on the far side of the tree while I was at the window. I couldn’t see it clearly through the branches, but I knew why it had come. I rapped on the glass and it flew away. Later when I went to bed, all seemed calm in the robin universe.

This morning I got up a little before six and looked through the  curtain. Little mother was gone and her nest was a shambles.Robin-2That crow! That cat! Or was it that squirrel!? Or that chipmunk? I couldn’t tell. The nest had been torn apart, I could see that. Where was she? I didn’t see broken eggs on the Robin-3 ground, or a broken robin. I was sure she saw it coming—whatever it was—and got away. Then while I was looking, she came back. Not to the nest but a limb on the far side of the tree. She hopped around, then came to the nest, surveyed the ruins—and plumped herself down in her usual Robin-4 position as if the nest was whole and everything was OK. Mind over matter, that’s what it was. Or she was in shock and had a need to stick to routine because she couldn’t cope with anything else. But she was upset, I could tell. She keep rising up and looking around. For what I didn’t know, but something was bugging her, as it had bugged her nest. She sat there, trying to figure what to do. I stood in the window, ditto.

Then she flew off. And I became aware of a strong hunch that the evil one would come back. I had no grounds for making that assumption—other than that mother still lived and one thing about predators, they’re always hungry. So I waited and watched behind the curtain, camera on tripod, finger on shutter release. And waited. For what? Cat? Chipmunk or squirrel? No, I was pretty sure that the culprit was the crow I’d seen the night before. The longer I waited, the surer I was it would revisit the scene of the crime.

I was partly trying to enter the robin’s frame of mind as she sat there, partly observing my own mind trying to make sense of what was happening. Her mind as I imagined it was a tiny part of my mind—of the situation I was trying to piece together. I had neurons devoted to the robin, my own feelings, understanding, and plan of action. Too, I had other neurons devoted to the culprit, who had to be that crow. Entering its mind, I could picture it in surrounding trees, waiting much as I was waiting. I couldn’t see it; it couldn’t see me. But I had a strong sense it was there and would soon make its move.

After twenty minutes there was a black flurry on the far side of the tree—crow had arrived. I knew he would have to check the nest for bird and her eggs. And he did, jumping closer, Robin-5

closer, closer. Click. Click. Click. I reflexively took three pictures once the crow reached the nest and stood over it, admiring what it had wrought, perhaps savoring its mastery of the situation. Or that’s what I told myself. Who knows what passes through the mind of a crow?

It is the turnings of my own mind I am concerned with in this blog. Watching the whole drama develop, I tried to stay ahead of it, or at least consider how it might unfold. My interpreter was active the whole time, making sense by joining what I saw to what might be possible, balancing sensory awareness to anticipation and cognition. Was there any difference between my experiential engagement with this narrative and my interpreter’s engagement trying to figure meaning where none existed before? I don’t think so. I would say a big part of who I am is the interpretive module in the left hemisphere of my cerebral cortex that is making me up as each day unfolds in its awareness. It is closer to the scene—the neural activity—than I am. It’s in the sensory-motor loop, I am the figment it makes up to account for what happens. I am a momentary abstraction, as robin and crow are abstractions, glimpses of a configured situation in one far corner of the universe. This is the stuff my world is made of. This is truth, beauty, reality.

crow

 

 

(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.

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Given that I ended my last post on the note we may not wake up tomorrow, I will continue in that vein to see if I can’t discover some more satisfactory resolution.

 

Speaking of mortality, the day I wrote this post, I read the scariest article I have ever read, Jeff Sharlet’s “Jesus Killed Mohammed: The crusade for a Christian military,” in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine. Sharlet addresses a different kind of integrity than I have presented in my last two reflections, a single-minded adherence to dogma derived from self-serving interpretation of religious scripture among members of the military.

 

Even as the U.S. conducts its so-called war on terror, many of its fighters and their leaders are finding strength in deviant religious doctrine by which Christian warriors will triumph against not only Islamic infidels but non-extremist Americans as well. We are breeding the very enemy within our ranks while doing battle in the arid lands of the Middle East. First we armed the mujahideen as our proxy warriors against the Russian invaders of Afghanistan; now we are training an army of religious extremists within our own forces. At present, their guns are aimed at Islamic fundamentalists, but their ideology is aimed straight at the heart of America’s Christian fundamentalists and a mythic government worthy of their ideals. I see a civil war brewing in our midst, pitting armed extremists—largely whites from the South serving as an army of God—against their more liberal brethren in the North and Far West.

 

Sharlet backs up his thesis by giving name and rank of many of his informants. One, “who asked that he not be named so as not to compromise his close connection to today’s top officers,” provided this view:

 

Although the military was integrated before much of the United States, he points out, it almost split along racial lines, particularly in the last days of Vietnam. If the military was to rebuild itself, the Southern white men at the heart of its warrior culture had to come to an understanding of themselves based on something other than skin color. Many, says the senator, turned toward religion, particularly fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity. . . . “They replaced race with religion,” says the senator. “The principle remains the same—an identity built on being separate from a society viewed as weak and corrupt.”

 

Lieutenant Colonel Bob Young speaks for many in the military. Sharlet quotes him as saying “Really, arguably, the military is the last American institution that tries to uphold Christian values. It’s the easiest place in America to be a Christian.” Christian, that is, with savage twists of hatred, superiority, and self-righteousness mixed in. This new military is more interested in defending its ideological interpretations of scripture than in defending the American people, many of whom it covertly despises.

 

Here is the heart of the problem humanity faces in trying to come to grips with its errant ways. Our left-brain interpreters are so good at synthesizing the many messages they receive from all quarters of the brain, it’s hard not to be swayed by them. But when interpreters are employed defensively in the interest of received dogma, relying largely on ideology approved by external agencies and institutions more than firsthand conscious experience, then the interpreter’s first duty is to cast a critical eye on the beliefs it is passing off as its own.

 

Anything written must be regarded with particular scrutiny because words can lie so convincingly. Scripture in particular—whether written 2,710, 1,955, or 1,377 years ago by Jewish, Christian, or Islamic hands in Hebrew, Greek, or Arabic—must be regarded as suspect because of the gulf between what was understood then to be true in the idiom of that time and what we understand in the light of today. It is particularly dangerous to apply ancient words to modern situations as if ancient and modern people were the same. We take Plato and Aristotle with a grain of salt; we must treat religious accounts the same way. Even if we enjoy reading them, we must keep in mind that was then, this is now. The situations in which those words arose no longer exist. When translated into modern languages, even though we want to believe them, our judgment must point out that ancient truths have a shelf life of a single generation, and that even 100 years after they were written, the context that provided their meaning had been largely forgotten.

 

For example, in winter 1986-1987, I sat down and read through the Oxford Study Edition of The New English Bible (Oxford University Press, 1976). I read it as literature—the word of lower-case men—not the word of upper-case God. In 1 Corinthians, I marked these passages as being of interest:

 

If the dead are never raised to life, ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ (15.32).

 

But, you may ask, how are the dead raised? In what kind of body? How foolish! The seed you sow does not come to life unless it has first died; and what you sow is not the body that shall be, but a naked grain, perhaps of wheat, or of some other kind; and God clothes it with the body of his choice, each seed with its own particular body (15.35-38). . . . So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in the earth as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown as an animal body, it is raised as a spiritual body (15.42-44). . . . What I mean, my brothers, is this: flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God, and the perishable cannot possess immortality. Listen! I will unfold a mystery: we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet-call. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will rise immortal, and we shall be changed. This perishable being must be clothed with the imperishable, and what is mortal must be clothed with immortality. And when our mortality has been clothed with immortality, then the saying of Scripture will come true: ‘Death is swallowed up; victory is won!’ ‘O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’ (15.50-55).

 

Very powerful writing, as much of Paul is. He presents his argument in orderly fashion, develops it by analogy, then draws his conclusion. He is a practiced rhetorician. That is, he skillfully uses words to make his points. But this is ancient persuasion, not truth. 

 

His topic is resurrection as a solution to the problem of death. He reasons by analogy from the plant world to the human, but within the understanding of his time (Corinthians is dated to the mid-50s BCE) which understood little about genetics or the germination of seeds. Paul presents planting seeds in the ground as analogous to burying the dead, or to death itself. Since the resulting sprout seemed to bear no resemblance to the seed, some agency must have been responsible for giving the seed a new garment or new body. By leap of faith, the only agent capable of making such a switch would be God, the ultimate agency for making good things happen beyond the limits of human understanding. (It would have been Satan, the anti-God concept, that made bad things happen.)

 

Getting to his point—the resurrection of the dead—Paul leaps from seeds to animal bodies, which can only achieve a spiritual existence after death through intervention by the same agency. In his day when distinctions were less closely drawn, that might have followed as a logical conclusion, but it now comes across very much like hand-waving by his left-brain interpreter. It is God’s will; Satan made me do it. Which are not explanations at all but fabulous accounts of everyday wonders.

 

Then Paul hits his emotional stride and is on-message with his interpreter. We are not going to die after all. “In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet-call”—this is the language of fairy-tale, not truth. No matter how much we want to believe, we must look around for the man at the levers behind the curtain. If judgment does not serve us now, we are lost. “‘Death is swallowed up; victory is won!’ ‘O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’” On whose authority might that be? Paul’s very own. That is, the authority of his left-brain interpreter. This is the man who took a hand in the stoning of St. Stephen, who had an episode on the road to Damascus, who converted from Judaism to become a follower of Christ. When traditional Jewish law failed him, he turned to love. There was incredible stress in his life during a time of great upheaval at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Bishop John Shelby Spong makes a case for Paul being gay long before it would have been acceptable: “It was, I believe, a repressed gay man named Paul of Tarsus who had been taught by his religion and his society to hate what he knew he was, who ultimately gave to the Christian faith its concept of grace, as the undeserved, unmerited love of God found in Christ Jesus” (Preface, The Letters of Paul, page xxxix).

 

And almost two thousand years later, we are to accept the word of this man so desperate for acceptance on the sensitive subject of life after death? I say we take it at face value, warts and all, and let it go at that. We are fortunate to have dictation from this able man’s left-brain interpreter extant for our examination. It is now up to us to conduct a suitably rigorous examination. If our left-brain interpreters leap to the conclusion that Paul was right because the book his words are written in would not lie to us, so grant them safe conduct across the intervening span of years to this very day, well, I say we are not only extremely needy but gullible to boot.

 

To put massive firepower in the hands of men who take the Bible as literal truth is the height of foolishness and misplaced trust. Men who kill for a living harden their interpreters against any and all criticism. They do it to protect themselves, but in the process may well be putting the rest of us at risk. This is exactly the kind of movement we must guard against. On the lookout for swarthy terrorists, who among us would suspect our own troops, the guys we support with all those yellow ribbons and bumper stickers?

 

I have a whole page of jottings about what I intended to cover in this post, and haven’t gotten to any of them. For today, I will leave it at that.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

The coherence of consciousness is tended by our left-brain interpreter whose job is to make sense of the data available to it from different parts of the brain. If those data are substantial and add to a piece, the interpreter has an easy job characterizing and making sense of the current situation. If they are spotty or contradictory, it must stretch what it knows in producing a plausible account based on what data is available.

 

Each of us is responsible for making sense of the current situation on his or her own. Therein lies the source of our personal integrity. We are more-or-less attentive, detailed, complete, patient, imaginative, and timely in coming up with our take on what we think is happening in our world. In interpreting a poem, for instance, if we attend to every word and punctuation mark, carefully weigh the emphasis given each detail in the sequence of events, and incorporate them in a narrative of what it all means to us, we have a fair chance of understanding what the poet is trying to convey. If we seize on one phrase as meaningful in the context of our personal experience while playing down the rest, odds are we will do violence to the poet’s craft and intent in overlaying our interests on top of her words.

 

Interpretation is a craft in its own right, and rises to an art when we must chose between rival interpretations supported by substantial evidence. Interpretation involves judgments best acquired through deep reflection and long experience. The integrity of our interpretative abilities is important because it represents our preparedness for dealing with life situations in which health and survival may be at issue. If we can bring all aspects of consciousness to bear on such situations, we improve the likelihood that the outcome will prove successful.

 

All manner of habits and behaviors affect our judgments, interpretations, and integrity. Pain, hunger, distractions, exhaustion, mind-altering drugs, alcohol, anger, lust, mood swings—all detract from the cohesiveness of our mental processes, and the suitability of our actions to any and all situations we are engaged in at the time. Each of us must confront his own demons in a trial of strength and integrity. That is, he must employ every aspect of consciousness in rising to such challenges, or not, as may be the case.

 

Life installs many such gates along our path, some at set milestones all must attain, others as random obstacles we must meet on our own. We either pass through—or our journey stops at one gate or another. Integrity helps us make it through as many gates as our physical and mental powers will allow. The last gate is our undoing; none of us possess integrity sufficient to getting through that one. Which, if we have done our best to learn what every gate has to teach us, is no defeat.

 

The flip side of integrity is respect for others we meet along the way. We recognize how hard they have worked to get this far, so their integrity deserves our highest regard. Like passing ships, we hail each other and sail on. There is a dignity to the process, an appreciation for what it takes to come on the scene, to struggle, to develop some degree of competence, to keep on and ever on.

 

Integrity casts an aura about itself, prompting others to aspire to its level. It sets the standard of what can be achieved—and gone beyond. I remember the day Roger Bannister ran the first under-four-minute mile. It was an accomplishment for humanity (at least in the Western World). It was as significant an event as Charles Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic in his day. The training, determination, endurance required raised the bar of integrity another notch higher.

 

Integrity can be inspiring, even contagious. First one individual achieves it on her own. Then its influence radiates outward to show what can be achieved. First within a family or small group, then into the neighborhood, community, tribe or nation, unto the human population. Mahatma Gandhi set a standard of integrity for all people. Inspired by Thoreau, he in turn inspired Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Martin Luther King. As Albert Schweitzer once said, “Do something wonderful, people may imitate it.” Integrity expressed on a global scale would set a new standard for every individual, spurring a revolution in cohesive consciousness.

 

Integrity, that is, develops in response to stressful situations. Everyone I know who has it, earned it by surmounting significant crises or obstacles in her path. She had to summon all her conscious resources to get through one time of trial or another, more likely a series of trials. You don’t acquire integrity by going to school, you can’t buy it anywhere, and nobody will simply hand it to you no matter how nice or attractive you are. Integrity has to be earned by pitting your all against a challenge worthy of your will to overcome. People with integrity always bear scars. They get them by doing more than anyone could reasonably expect—giving their utmost when others stop far short rather than surrender what little ease and comfort they might have.

 

At the Pachamama Symposium I attended in April, I led a discussion on personal integrity. The stories people told of their struggles to achieve integrity were highly personal yet equally moving. Going beyond addiction to recovery, disillusionment with friends or community, being oppressed, breaking free from a stifling relationship, seeking reconciliation by confronting the truth—in every instance integrity was achieved through sacrifice and hard work. Each story told of a life improved by summoning unsuspected resources under stress. That is what it takes to bring integrity within reach.

 

The biggest challenge to integrity is facing certain death. Every day brings us closer to having to undergo that trial. Walking away from a car crash, a bullet flying by the ear, a close call in the emergency room—there are many reminders that none of us is immune to death. For every one of us, the end is certain. Ambiguity about what form it will take in our case makes it seem remote because we can’t picture it. But we delude ourselves if we think denial will help us avoid it. The true test of integrity—in the sense of the true proof that it exists—is the stance we take in preparation for death by whatever blow, whenever it comes. Which may be this afternoon, tomorrow, next week, or fifty years from now.

 

Facing death puts a special premium on the days that are left compared to those that have been spent. Every morning we wake up has a special quality. How can we make the best use of such a gift? How can we be most generous with gifts of our own? What tasks fall to us because of our unique qualifications? How can we make the most of ourselves by participating in this special day of all days in Earth’s history? How can we best deploy the many dimensions of our consciousness in living purposefully and deliberately?

 

Whatever answers we give to such questions will be a measure of our integrity. Of our conscious being at this given time in this place. We have earned the right to do anything we want. What will it be on this day? We can decide about tomorrow when we wake up, assuming we do.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

My posts frequently begin as a shimmering in my consciousness, a kind of beckoning glow or maybe low hum from one direction or another. I can’t call it a thought—more a proto- or incipient presence that might, if I stick with it, evolve into a thought. Language usually isn’t involved from the beginning, but emerges sooner or later. I feel a kind of yearning to pursue something. Yes, to be engaged in an activity leading I don’t know where but fascinating from the start. You see, I can barely express how ideas come to me. Something latent within me wants to get out. I am not the agent, merely the channel.

 

I don’t know how ideas originate any more than where words come from. It just happens in some indeterminate way. I don’t make it happen, it happens to me. First I am drawn or excited by something, I know not what. I get a sense of its latency, then get out of the way so it can emerge on its own.

 

OK, so what started this off? A foggy sense that the function of territory (or its monetary derivative) is to promote sexual activity, sending sperm cells rushing toward egg cells, sparking embryogenesis, the mixing of genes, birth, and the onrush of life. Reproduction, like consciousness, is always situated in a specific set of circumstances. In this case, within a given territory shared by a wide variety of life forms all using it to the same end—to glean enough calories derived from solar energy to perform the creation dance and so kindle a new generation.

 

I keep coming back to this same shimmering kernel of awareness. I can gaze at the woods, contemplate the stars, indulge in sexual yearning, or track my own consciousness—and I end up at the same intersection in my mind where all life comes together. As if all thoughts were one thought, all consciousness one consciousness, all actions one act. Attraction and procreation are integral to everything we do, connecting us to ourselves, one another, our place on Earth.

 

I see that life keeps creating the same situations over and over. There is method in its diversity because its end is always the one end. Boy-meets-girl is ever the same story: Let’s match gametes and see what comes of it. What happens is life. With us, the object is to give the smallest human cell (sperm) access to the largest human cell (egg) at an appropriate time in a supportive environment rich in the necessities of life—food, drink, shelter, and a big enough sample of the social order to stack the odds in life’s favor.

 

I remember my friend Jan coming to Boston from Hungary in the early 1950s and taking up with an Irish girl from what some considered the wrong side of town. “Wrong” in that by prevailing custom their gametes weren’t supposed to get within range of each other. But Jan did it, as Thomas Jefferson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and just about every other person you can name did it in his or her time. If gametes that are not supposed to meet didn’t meet, what would humanity do for recreation in a world without soap operas, novels, movies, or gossip? Where would advertisers place their ads? Clearly, the economy would collapse if boys and girls always behaved as they were supposed to. At some level we are aware there’s little future in just saying “no.” I’m not advocating teen sex so much as taking precautions against conception and sexually transmitted diseases. As a thought experiment, picture your day with the sexy parts (real, imagined, sublimated) left out. In a very real sense, sex is life.

 

Earlier, I approached this topic through my winter appreciation of cleavage (Reflection 50, posted January 16, 2009), asking myself: Now where does that come from? There I wrote:

 

Cleavage is a way station to babies. I don’t have a lust to go that far, but I do enjoy the way station. A little bell goes off in my head when there’s cleavage in the neighborhood. I don’t see it so much as just know it’s there. By a kind of sixth sense. Which is reassuring. Beyond admiration, nothing is expected of me, much less required. I go about my business, the cleavage bearers about theirs. It’s a great arrangement with no strings attached.

 

Sex is right up there with the urge to eat, drink, breathe, be active, and sleep—all necessary to life. Consciousness is ever on the lookout, our autonomic nervous systems do the rest. Judging by our reproductive success, the system really works. But, strangely, it is often hard to appreciate our individual involvement in the life system because of the almost subliminal level at which we become aware of it. If it came at us in bold words, colors, shapes—like stop, caution, or yield signs—it would be easier for us to take responsibility for the results—and maybe even manage ourselves better than we do.

 

It all starts with that little inside shimmer or shiver. Nothing is spelled out, we just know something’s on. So we make our play to see if we can’t facilitate things a bit. Since it takes two to tango, we have to make sure that the other is keeping with us by stirring his/her desire to our level—or that we’re rising to theirs. We each help create a situation that encourages the other to complement our actions through mutual fulfillment. Done right, it’s a great game. As Richard Grossinger writes in Embryogenesis: Species, Gender, and Identity (North Atlantic Books, 2000): “In searching together for their individual identities, [male and female] collaborate across their gap of tissues in fathomless, transpersonal acts” (page 516). Well before chromosomes are merged in the fertilized egg, minds are merged as if that union of souls were the real thing. Evolution grants us the illusion that we know what we’re doing, when very often we have only the faintest of clues.

 

So what is sex all about? Reproduction, certainly, with as much gratification as possible strewn along the way. I view gay and lesbian sex as ancillary to reproduction in freeing same-sex couples from responsibility for the follow-through of sex so they can see to other vital matters for which active reproducers have little time or energy. Reproduction entails caring not only for the zygote, but its potential for developing into a blastula, a gastrula, an embryo, a baby, a child, a youth, an adult, who will go on to play the next round of the game her own way. All starting with a shimmer in someone’s awareness. Some dim little spark of pre-consciousness with the potential for carrying genes and life forward.  

 

Where does that spark come from, that glint of desire? Evolution tends it as carefully as the Chinese did the Olympic Flame in 2008. Everyone knows it matters. Richard Grossinger says this:

 

We must finally accept, in light of the harsh reality of being born and dying, that what we are is a continuation of what the universe is, so all our wishes and fears could not be irrelevant to cosmic process; else how could they have occurred? Our wild hopes for rebirth, our dread of hell and extinction are part of the universe too.

          The journey is unknown; the path is unknown; what will happen is unknown; what it all means is unknown. This is our only solace in a fathomless, cryptic universe.

          The inevitability of death is the same as the inevitability of birth. The forces that brought us here, that acknowledge and cling to life, are the forces that will take us from here. If we shun and vilify our certain deaths, then we must in some way deny the fact of our life.

          We are in the hands of the gods anyway and, if they are not able captains, we were in trouble long before dying; we were in fact in trouble before being born (page 724).

 

Which guarantees full employment for our left-brain interpreters. As mere motes in the universe, we are incapable of knowing how the material universe translates into sexual desire. Are genes or chromosomes alive? No, they are mere molecules. Is DNA alive? No, a long strung-out molecule, but matter nonetheless. Are proteins alive, the products of DNA? Well, they contribute to living bodies, but in themselves do not reproduce, so, no, they are not alive.

 

But somewhere along there in cells equipped with mitochondria, ribosomes and nuclei, DNA enables reproduction, protein replacement and repair, intake of food, and removal of waste. According to an arcane formula, matter is brought to life. And the potential for consciousness and sexual reproduction come along with it.

 

Picture sperm cells racing toward egg cells as if fully conscious of what they were doing (all but one rushing to their deaths; the one that hits the mark getting its genes past Go onto the board for another round). Picture the one egg cell consciously hoping for Mr. Right to make it on time. What are we but gametes up on two legs, walking around looking to get laid? “Our” consciousness is gamete consciousness. Ultimately, territory provides the energy and opportunity for sperms and eggs to meet up, for fertility, nurturance, growth, consciousness, life. All right here on our home planet. Which start to finish, sponsors the whole project.

 

Our consciousness is Earth consciousness. The shimmer and hum that first grab our attention are sights and sounds of ancient seas inviting the first beings to make the leap from an assemblage of molecules to animate life. It makes no sense to think ourselves off the Earth; we are its creatures, born and bred to this place. The spark has been passed for over three billion years. We are Earthlings in every intimate detail. Beyond that, we can’t know enough to ask how we got here. We have no choice but to take care of the territory that takes care of us. Anything else is unthinkable.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Money is a pure idea, an abstraction having only symbolic value but no concrete, existential qualities of its own. The sensory or qualitative attributes associated with bills and coins belong more properly to currency issued in tangible form by duly authorized mints in symbolic denominations having value separate from any historic, artistic, or material value they may have. With money, the value is in the mind, which may be projected onto coins in the hand, goods in the market, stashes under the mattress, IOUs, and so on.

The point of money is to facilitate past, present, or future exchanges of items deemed to have value, so enabling apples and oranges to be fairly bartered against the same standard in the marketplace over time. If the price is not right today, perhaps later.

But where does the value of money actually come from? Labor is one source, representing more-or-less skillful work enabled by calories from sunlight via Earth’s plant and animal life. Capital is another, derived from productive land itself or minerals and other commodities taken from land or sea. In this sense, money is hardly symbolic but represents value derived in every case from the nature and productivity of the Earth. In fact the entire human economy depends absolutely on value received from our planet directly or indirectly from the sun. These are tangible, extracted values indeed, not merely abstract or symbolic ones. Backing every dollar, yen, euro, peso is Earth itself, the bank on which our livelihoods depend absolutely.

The French farmer hoisting a clod of soil into the air in his fist, crying: “This is France!” has it exactly right. The state survives by the good graces of its waters and soils, not subsequent human endeavor as is commonly supposed. In the most concrete sense possible, the value of money represents labor, metabolism, food, territory, and Earth resources. In a very real sense, money is equivalent to territory giving us a foothold on Earth. That is its derivation. Territory for producing food to support a worker’s metabolism, territory providing resources—the ultimate capital. Printing money puts us into debt—to Earth itself. For which Earth gets a big fat IOU. In a very real sense, the more we consume, the more we are indebted. We withdraw, Earth pays—that is the system we have devised for ourselves without giving credit where it is due, as if Earth’s gifts were externals and not the ultimate reality.

Having gotten this far into today’s post, I visited the Jesup Library in Bar Harbor on my way to the post office. Browsing through the New York Times of April 12, I came across an OpEd piece by Eric Zencey under the title, “Mr. Soddy’s Ecological Economy.” Mr. Soddy being Frederick Soddy, a British chemist who became an economist active in the 1920s and 1930s. This sentence leapt straight into my brain:

The amount of wealth that an economy can create is limited by the amount of low-entropy energy that it can sustainably suck from its environment—and by the amount of high-entropy effluent from an economy that the environment can sustainably absorb.

There, in one sentence is what I’ve been trying to say in four paragraphs! And I never even got to the waste part. Of course, to understand that sentence you have to know about entropy—the flip side of work in being spent energy reduced to such a low state as to be useless.

Then I read the whole piece and this 1970s revisioning of the economy as a living system by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen made even more sense:

Like all life, [the economy] draws from its environment valuable (or “low entropy”) matter and energy—for animate life, food; for an economy, energy, ores, the raw materials provided by plants and animals. And like all life, an economy emits a high-entropy wake—it spews degraded matter and energy: waste heat, waste gases, toxic byproducts, apple cores, the molecules of iron lost to rust and abrasion. Low entropy emissions include trash and pollution in all their forms, including yesterday’s newspaper, last year’s sneakers, last decade’s rusted automobile.

Zencey goes on to say [very mildly, I thought] there’s “a systemic flaw in how our economy finances itself.” In my words, we keep overdrawing our account with the Earth because we do not acknowledge our indebtedness, claiming it is external to our method of accounting. That is, it is hidden from consciousness as if it did not exist. Except it does, and we habitually avert our gaze. Our left-brain interpreters never told us; how were we to know?

It is time we learned to live with Earth as good stewards, not on it as if it were merely our pad in the universe. Which means accounting for our fouling of the environment with two truckloads of waste for every one truckload of resources we extract from it. This has been going on long enough that this imbalance is being noticed by those on the forefront of economic awareness who hope to settle our long-overdue debt to the Earth. It’s like credit-card debt, only fatal, not just extravagant.

The best book I’ve read lately is an offshoot from the Quaker Institute for the Future (in some people’s eyes, an oxymoron if ever there was one), a book by Peter Brown and Geoffrey Garver titled Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009). To capture the flavor of the book, I offer three excerpts which point to the revolution in consciousness we need to establish a sustainable economy:

1. As we make the personal choices we must make each day, we face the dilemma of being dependent on a society that causes ecological destruction we abhor. We cannot turn away from the modern world, yet we must curb our demands so that the earth’s resources are sustained. We are called to show, by our daily choices and actions, the way toward a more harmonious, more fulfilling, nondestructive way for humans to live on our planet—the way to harvest the fruit without destroying the tree (page 156).

2. Do we have to wait for the earth’s decline to reach such a crisis point that it can no longer support significant numbers of people and species, before we unite with our fellow human beings to bring about the necessary economic and governance changes? If we do wait, widespread environmental degradation and escalating violent conflict over energy, water, wood, and food are inevitable, with even larger and more tragic population movements than the planet is already enduring. Many people will die, and many will endure lives of great misery (page 168).

3. Instead of the anxious, illusory pursuit of more money and possessions, people need to think about pursuing joyful, grateful, and fulfilling lives in right relationship with life’s commonwealth. Values progression of this kind is needed not only at a personal level but also in institutions and enterprises at the community, national, and international level. Many indigenous peoples already have cultural values and belief systems that support right relationships, which rest primarily on respect and gratitude for all that is (page 168).

Imagine an economy based on shared gratitude for the gifts Earth grants us, not on some mock competition for goods and wealth produced we care not where, by what or whom. That will be the day consciousness triumphs over ignorance and arrogance, the day humanity truly comes of age.

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Consciousness combines a great many mental processes all operating outside of awareness, its genius being to bind them as if they shared the inherent integrity of one process alone. I seem to remember Christof Koch pointing out in The Quest for Consciousness that the brain contains more than 40 separate maps of various aspects of visual consciousness (motion, color, different orientations, contrast, depth, etc.)—and that’s but one sensory modality. The neural map we seem to be conscious of has yet to be located—or does not exist in the human brain. Like Botticelli’s depiction of Venus on the half-shell rising from the waves, we are more interested in the culminating image itself than the myriad brushstrokes that went into creating that image on a flat surface.

 

In any nutshell summary of consciousness, I would have to include such components as concepts, sensory figures, and feelings blending together at a sufficient level of detail to enable purposive behavior in any relevant situation. Consciousness is not broken down into its parts in awareness but emerges full-blown as consciousness of one thing or another. Cramming the process into the confines of a gross oversimplification:

 

Consciousness funds long-term conceptual categories with immediate sensory qualities in the presence of feelings at a level of detail appropriate to guide purposive behavior within a relevant situation.

 

Which is what we leave out when we say we are conscious of anything at all. We didn’t make it, it’s just there. Which is why the world seems to lie before us (in Matthew Arnold’s words) “so various, so beautiful, so new,” when our brains work so hard to achieve that illusion from myriad bits and scraps of awareness.

 

In Reflection 40: The Meaning of Our Times (posted December 22, 2008), I quoted a letter from one of my mother’s friends narrating the following incident from her childhood:

 

Still vivid in my mind is the day I stayed after school in the first grade to ‘help’ the teacher. In awe I watched her make rather a clumsy sketch of a crescent moon on the blackboard. Beside it she lettered ‘moon.’ I rushed home to tell my mother that I had already learned the spelling word for the next day: ‘m-o-o-n, banana.’

 

Here is consciousness being assembled by a six-year-old girl operating on the leading edge of her awareness. The idea of banana is coupled to the image of a crescent in the presence of awe and a sense of revelation so powerful that she runs home to apply her new learning within the most significant situation in her life, her ongoing relationship with her mother. She leaves it to us to picture her mother gently setting her straight with a sense of suppressed amusement, and the resulting disappointment and mortification that endured for eighty years.

 

In the earlier post, I treated the incident as an example of an effort to make sense of the world. But making sense of things is the job of the interpreter module in the frontal lobes of our left cerebral hemispheres, so here I offer the same episode to illustrate consciousness hoisting itself by its own bootstraps—and getting it wrong. Which is why the story was committed to memory to be retrieved after so many years. Trial-and-error learning has a powerful effect on the brain because it gives us a hint about how the building of consciousness is properly done.

 

Consciousness is something we acquire through countless experiments we conduct on ourselves. Every experiment is a constrained situation within which we can learn something new. We venture a guess what will happen, then see if that’s how it goes. Yes, we are affirmed or, no, we are disabused. Which is exactly what happened in the mysterious case of the “moon-banana.” Red lights flash, klaxons sound, mother smiles, as, disillusioned, the girl sees her error. M-o-o-n does not spell banana. Ah, I see where I went wrong; I mistook the crescent. Teacher really meant it as a new moon. M-o-o-n spells moon. Now I get it.

 

I remember when I was fifteen getting into the back seat of the car behind my father who was driving, and saying something to the effect that I took great solstice from one thing or another—being immediately aware that I had confounded solstice and solace—so being utterly undone in the presence of the Great Man. Later, I looked the two words up in the dictionary to get them straight in my mind.

 

If, as so often happens, we cannot admit our mistakes to ourselves, then consciousness runs as before and our left-brain interpreters need issue no apologies for not getting it right. We are not sadder and wiser but older and more stupid. There’s a lot of that around these days. We see it in pompous politicians, arrogant bankers, posturing experts of all sorts. Everyone has an answer to all questions, and is more than happy to share it with those who are less gifted. Asked about mistakes we have made, none come to mind. As if misjudgments were cardinal sins. As if our image before the world had to be maintained at all cost. As if making mistakes could actually make us lose face instead of demonstrating yet again the depth of our humanity.

 

The danger is not in being vulnerable to criticism but in pretending we are not because we meet the self-set standard of perfection. The height of folly is to insist the world is as we take it to be without examining our own contribution to how we reach for the world in the first place. We underestimate the gullibility of our on-board interpreters when, for example, pride, greed, or embarrassment inhibit their proper functioning and we are unable to admit our own errors even to ourselves, much less to the world.

 

Life’s hardest lesson is that the world we are conscious of is largely our own doing. Our left-brain interpreters do the best they can under the circumstances. That is, as constrained by other factors and modules in our brains. We are not constrained by the world-as-it-is so much as by that world as represented in our heads. The world we know is our version of the world; the two never amounting to the same thing. The “finite provinces of meaning,” “the fortresses of belief” within which we make sense exist in our minds, not the world. Which is equally true for scientists, philosophers, theologians as for other mortal beings.

 

Political campaigns in the U.S. have come to be theatrical productions of one big lie after another. In pretending to be all things to all voters, candidates end up hollow effigies with extended hands because what they are conscious of is wanting those votes. Nothing for them has meaning if they don’t win the race. Maintaining the charade has become so expensive that only millionaires can afford to play the game. And when they get into office, they forget the people who voted for them and have eyes and ears only for lobbyists representing interests with the highest-paid legal teams who provide wording for the laws—the legal reality—they want imposed on the nation.

 

According to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee or the National Rifle Association, m-o-o-n really does spell banana. The world must march to their drummers, no matter what Mummy says. In their eyes, AIPAC and NRA can do no wrong. The only way to run an economy is to get out of the way of the rich by cutting their taxes. It was our duty to wage war against terrorism by invading Iraq. No matter what it costs, private banks and corporations “too big to fail” must be bailed out with public funds. Guarantees of free speech must be extended to corporations so that they have a constitutional right to defend their interests as they want, no matter how private and self-serving.

 

Until we understand the complex nature of consciousness, and our role in creating the seeming reality it presents to us, we will keep running aground on ledges deep within the assumptions we make about the nature of the real and of consciousness as its proxy available to us all. The truth is, all awareness is a matter of interpretation, and interpretation is subject to pressures and influences we do not admit to or know not of.

 

Consciousness exists to clarify our view of the situations we are involved in. Such clarity is not an optical property but an effort to suppress the clamor of rival views in our mental systems, so is always political in nature as representing the interests of personal survival as it is most easily and conveniently understood. Consciousness is invariably presented to the mind as consciousness of one scenario or another in which we are invested. It is an interpretation of mental events, not an accurate depiction of reality. It all depends on what the meaning of of is. Of the mental mechanics of our situated intentionality at the time.

 

According to Merleau-Ponty, Kant referred to the hand as an outer brain of man. That outer brain is driven by consciousness of to reach into the world as if no different from the interpreted world of consciousness. Which is exactly the problem. If as conscious beings we get the world wrong, then our behavior is maladapted to the hidden world that is—and we can’t tell the difference. Until corrected by experience, our illusions R us.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Given that I see things that are not of this world (cedars as men, trash bags as dying crows, TV antennas as crashing jets, clip-art cats where there are no real cats), and do not see things that demonstrably are present in this world (jars of mustard, sunflowers in a vase), I can only conclude that much of consciousness is speculative in nature. In charting the mysterious world, the mind often models events as a distorted version of the true situation. No map can accurately present the territory; no mind reveal the world as it is.

 

Enter Michael Gazzaniga’s left-brain interpreter to explain how it is that consciousness can carry on with less than complete or reliable information. No perfectionist, it does the best it can in interpreting the evidence available to it. As always, the object is to come up with a plan of personal action suited to its best estimate of the current situation. In view of the feedback resulting from such action, the interpreter will modify its estimate and try again. Through a series of successive approximations, it develops a narrative of the stages by which it overcomes obstacles in reaching its final goal of appropriate action.

 

On the grandest scale, this narrative becomes an account of the hero/heroine’s journey through the Valley of Trials to the ultimate victory against evil, and his/her triumphant return. On a lesser scale, it answers such prosaic questions as, “How did work go today, Honey? or “What did you do in school?” In any case, the narrative consists of the emotionally-charged high points of consciousness attempting to make sense of its world through a series of challenges laid out in the dimensions of personal time and personal space.

 

Even Einstein’s space-time continuum is a tale told by his left-brain interpreter grappling with his placement in two worlds at once: the universe of his creative consciousness attempting to model its situation in personal-organic-conceptual terms of time and space, and the details of a calibrated physical universe it infers to lie beyond itself. From my perspective, Einstein projected his mental calibration from one setting to the other, confounding his personal situation with a mysterious surround which knows only change but nothing of time and nothing of space.

 

Conduct the following thought experiment: Units of measurement are creations of the human mind referenced to arbitrary standards. Before humans evolved, and after they become extinct, can time (referred to any standard at all) be said to exist? Can space (referred to any standard at all) be said to exist?

My own conclusion is that absent consciousness, variables such as duration, distance, and change persist in an uncalibrated state as usual, but the artifacts of measurable time and space become irrelevant and inapplicable. That is, along with beauty, music, color, number and other indicators of mental relationships, both time and space exist as we know them solely in the mind of the conscious interpreter, exactly where thought experiments reside.

 

Workings of the human mind encompass a great many operations, including attending, feeling, perceiving, conceiving, remembering, relating, planning, expecting, understanding, inducing, deducing, inferring, supposing, extrapolating, interpolating, comparing, categorizing, prioritizing, speaking, listening, speculating, imagining, and so on. Twenty-four/seven, this mind of ours is a very busy place. One thing it can’t do, however, is provide a clear perspective on any so-called real world. In every instance, the best it can do is speculate about such a world on the basis of insufficient evidence.

 

What consciousness does best is play games because games have a limited number of rules, and the human mind thrives in situations characterized by clarity and order. If there are too many rules, we forget them and get confused; if too few, we get bored. The moves in chess are about right. The ten commandments verge on too many. Solitaire has too few to sustain attention for long. Drawing cards from a shuffled deck (as in Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, or almost any card game) keeps down the number of details to be held in mind while, at the same time, enlivening play. Games of chance are engaging because, if the possibilities are large, the actualities are few and very clear. You either win or lose.

 

Born speculators, whatever the game, we always play to win, which says a lot about consciousness. It’s as if the point of consciousness were to play games. Which, given the vagaries of our left-brain interpreter, it usually is. We are risk takers, inhabiting the gap between the possible and the probable. Life is boring if we always bet on a sure thing. Gaming is in our nature. Gaming the market, gaming the environment, gaming relationships—all for what we can get out of them (hopefully, without losing our shirts).

 

Even science involves hypotheses which may not pan out. Doubt and uncertainty are the backbone that gives science its character through disciplined speculation. There’s never enough evidence to be absolutely sure of anything. There’s no such thing as 100% certainty.

 

Including human judgment, which is intimately involved in gauging the imaginativeness of the left-brain interpreter. Truth or fiction? When the evidence is skimpy, it’s hard to tell. But we have to do something to avoid being seen as wimps, so barge ahead on what little we know. If we win, we are likely to win big. If we lose, well, that’s why we hedge our bets.

 

We often live as if life were a multiple choice test. My advice is always go for the longest, most detailed answer. The others are probably fillers to pad out the options. At least that’s what I speculate.

 

We live in the tension between getting it right and getting it wrong. Thank you, Judgment, Interpreter, and Imagination for the rollercoaster ride.

 

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