(Copyright © 2010)

This blog is an extension of a project I started in July, 2006 in a summer research seminar led by the Quaker Institute for the Future at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Each member worked for a month on a project in an atmosphere of communal discernment, making several presentations to the group, offering comments and suggestions in an atmosphere of mutual trust. My project was a Power-Point promoting resolution of conflicts over marine issues on the Maine coast. How, I asked, could people come to mutual agreement on issues they approached from divergent points of view? My conclusion was that human consciousness is such a personal matter, there is no way fully to appreciate another’s perspective. Mapping our life experiences onto our respective worlds as we do, we effectively live in parallel universes ruled by different assumptions, customs, rules, and desires, making agreement about anything extremely difficult.

Which didn’t advance my project idea very far, if at all. Following the seminar, I put together several more detailed presentations, each falling short of my ambitions. It struck me I might be working in the wrong medium, so took to blogging about consciousness as an alternative route to the same goal. After 199 posts, am I any further along than I was? Yes and no. I have developed several new ways of looking at the problem, and broadened my respect for the difficulty of what I am trying to do, which I see now, comes with the territory of being human. Consciousness is a very flexible tool for overcoming short-term difficulties, but it is less helpful in the long term because rooted in the practical here and now, not the necessarily conceptual then of the future.

In effect, at the same time they are the bases we stand on, our past ways often prevent us from taking new positions in unfamiliar situations. And every new day is an unfamiliar situation (if it’s not, it’s not a new day). Changing our ways requires we give up old habits of making ourselves happen in the universe. If we can’t slough the skin we present to the world, then it’s bound to become dry and disfiguring. Is that what we want—to cling to what we’ve already become? Or can we keep up with changing times by incorporating new factors into our makeup?

On that note, I went back to Reflection 1: Dying Crow, to see where I was when I began this series of posts. Here’s the “snippet” of consciousness I dealt with in October 2008:

I am driving along a country road and see a dead crow ahead. No, not dead, a dying crow—its wing feebly flapping the air. A shadow on the edge of the shoulder showing signs of life. What should I do? For me, this is a worst-case scenario. I can’t just drive by and leave it to suffer. I am aware of strong feelings welling within me. I don’t want to stop and wring its neck, but what else can I do? I’d rather keep going. I am conflicted. Then, as I approach the dying crow, I see it differently—a trash bag blowing in the wind. Yes, definitely, a black plastic bag agitated by the wash from passing cars. Relieved, I drive on.

Categorization, that’s what I was dealing with. Mapping my values, attitudes, and experience onto the world—and getting it wrong. I caught myself in the act of falsely projecting my fears and assumptions onto an innocent phenomenon—a dark, shifting shape by the side of the road. In that instant, I confront not a dying crow but my own consciousness remaking the world to suit itself.

In Reflection 4: Crash, I did exactly the same thing in seeing a swept-back, metal TV antenna gleaming in sunlight as a crashing airplane. In Reflection 6, I saw a complete stranger ahead of me on the sidewalk as my friend, Fred, because he was dressed as Fred would have dressed and walked with a similar gait. Erroneously mapping concepts onto my immediate surroundings, that’s where I began this blog. I didn’t use the word “categorization” because it wasn’t in my working vocabulary, but I see now that’s what I was dealing with.

In Reflection 3: Mia Culpa, I tell of looking for a jar of mustard—and not finding it anywhere—even though I looked right at it several times in my search. What could happen to a jar of mustard, a fixture in my very idea of kitchen and refrigerator? What did happen was that it was lying on its side, presenting a round, red top, not the half-full, bent-sided jar I had in mind. Wrong gestalt. I had the wrong image of what I was looking for. The pattern I was seeking didn’t exist because it had morphed into an unconventional view I didn’t associate with mustard. One of life’s minor situations, and an occasion for learning about my habitual search strategies. Categorization, again, gone sour. Casting trite expectations onto my little world, I came up empty-handed and still hungry. 

In Reflection 5: Sunflowers, I told of going upstairs to get something, and not seeing a bunch of huge sunflowers in a vase that I passed within six inches of while both coming and going. I was so fixated on whatever I’d come after as to be functionally blind. “Do you like the sunflowers?” asks Carole. “What sunflowers?” says I. Again, a void in my personal space because, for me, sunflowers weren’t the issue, so I wasn’t looking for them. And I don’t seem to see what I’m not looking for. Expectancy, attention, and categorization are key in how I map my mind onto the world, making the world I construe for myself absolutely my personal world. Anyone coming right behind me would construct a different world based on her expectations, attention, and habitual modes of categorization.

All of which have consequences. In Reflection 10: Diagnosis, I told of going to an eminent doctor who, thinking I had cystic fibrosis, put me in hospital for a week of tests intended to confirm his hunch. Except they didn’t. He released me, not having a clue what I had (which, as it turned out thirty years later, was celiac disease all along). Diagnosis is how we decide between our options for categorizing particular patterns that interest us. It is a way of getting hold of the pattern so we’re sure it’s this one and not that one. Putting a name to a pattern of symptoms, we then apply the standard remedy or customary course of treatment. Who are we? Diagnosticians, every one. Or cartographers, bent on mapping our expectancies onto phenomena that matter to us. Then acting (rightly or wrongly) on the basis of the diagnosis we have mapped out.

In Reflection 37: Terms of Endearment, I blogged about giving names to persons or things that change our lives. In hindsight, I see I was dealing with an aspect of categorization by relying on prior experience in becoming conscious of something new:

In naming loved ones, babies, pets, boats, towns, mountains, and constellations in the sky, we give meaning to particular phenomena in our experience, while at the same time, giving concrete form to values which are important to us. Naming is a simultaneous giving and taking within consciousness, a giving of ourselves and a taking-in of the world, claiming it as our world.

Naming is applied intentionality, a defining characteristic of consciousness:

Looking for, seeing as, consciousness of—this is how we fit the world to preconceived plans. We take those plans with us wherever we go. We bring the world into being as a variation on the intentional order we carry in our heads.

Scary, to think that how we name our children and our pets reveals who we are. But there it is: consciousness projecting itself onto patterns in our heads, and those named patterns becoming features of the world we wrap ourselves in. Other cultures, other people—other quilts for consciousness.

Throughout this blog, I have tried to deal with metaphor as a variant form of intentionality, also deliberately applied. Intentionality is habitual categorization, representing a personal style of mapping concepts derived from prior experiences onto patterns that emerge in everyday life. Which is exactly what categorization does for us in giving meaning to sensory patterns and relationships. When personal meanings are an issue, metaphor tells the world emphatically how we see it in light of our experience.

Humor, too, reveals categorizations by setting up a conceptual framework or situation that is fulfilled by a specific punch line, resolving a tense situation (because of frustrated or confounded expectancy) in an apt yet novel manner, eliciting laughter—our stock response to nonthreatening surprises.

Categorization is a basic feature of consciousness that surfaces in almost everything we do. Human understanding is a form of categorization—of lending character to the world based on how we choose to depict it from our point of view. The bulk of this blog, it turns out in hindsight, deals with aspects of categorizing as a key aspect of mind. Dying crows, crashing planes, missing mustard jars, strangers mistaken for friends, sunflowers not seen, naming, metaphors, humor—here in each case is meaning-making in action, the human mind at work trying to find sense in its relevant universe by mapping abstract concepts from the past onto sensory patterns in the here and the now.

It was Gerald M. Edelman who gave me the word “categorization,” which he distinguishes from the philosophical sort by calling “perceptual categorization.” In the Glossary to Wider than the Sky: the phenomenal gift of consciousness (Yale, 2004), he lists perceptual categorization as, “The process by which the brain ‘carves the world up’ to yield adaptive categories. The most fundamental of early cognitive functions.” Reading his works this past winter, I realized he and I were talking about similar aspects of mind using different words. In addition, Edelman suggests not only a neural substrate, but an evolutionary or adaptive origin as well, both of which lie beyond my limited experience. Seeing categorization as the central core of consciousness, I switched to Edelman’s way of thinking, trying to work my way into the concept, which keeps growing larger and more encompassing in my understanding. It provides a fitting culmination to this blog, letting me tie much of what I have written together—a major categorizational shift in my way of thinking.

I call this next-to-last post (I am retiring for now) “Letting Go” because one part of categorization I haven’t dealt with is how we grow to become more discriminating categorizers by letting go of, or transcending, the limits imposed on our seeing-the-world by the narrowness of our lived experience. If conflict resolution between those who see the world differently is an issue, then I believe the best solution might be to let go of our conflictive selves in order to grow into larger persons with broader abilities to find meaning in the patterns we see in the world. It’s OK for Jews to be Jews, Muslims to be Muslims, atheists to be atheists, people to be who they are because they cannot reinvent themselves as someone else. Clearly, this requires self-transcendence of us all. If our categorizations become hardened because written in stone for all time, we are incapable of waking up to a new day. When, in fact, every day is given us as a new challenge because the past no longer exists. It is up to us to keep up with the sun and the seasons by renewing ourselves to meet the challenge of today, not those of yesterday, or thousands of years before that.

I say we need to discover more humor in our rigid categorizations by rising above ourselves and looking down, seeing ourselves as characters in a story (or is it a joke?). That is, of letting go the chains we wrap round our minds as if we were creatures, not of the instant, but of all time, ever the same because we are trapped in our minds and cannot get out.

Did Moses know it all? Did Jesus? Mohammed? Shaping ourselves in their image by repeating words ascribed to them, we become cardboard cutouts of so many smiling waiters or waitresses bringing trays filled with mugs of beer to assure our satisfaction and happiness. As if a particular brand of beer—or religion—held the answer to all questions. As if loyal or even orthodox adherence to the past was the way to the future. As if we knew now what the future will bring, and it will be as we describe it, without fail. As if each day was not new, but only an opportunity for us to cram it into the mold of the past to fit concepts we have in mind because that is the only way we can reliably know who we are. As if we were not flesh-and-blood humans but creatures of stone, much like the terracotta warriors of China.

In truth, consciousness has the power to reinvent itself in response to the situation each of us finds him-or-herself in today. We may not be able to beam ourselves into new bodies, but we can transcend the limits we put on ourselves yesterday and the day before. Indeed, it is we who bind our minds with steel bands lest we think a new thought or dream of casting-off our old, worn-out personalities and tired ideas. They are already dead; all we need do is let go and shed them as our former selves. It is not written anywhere that who we were is who we are for all time. That is a trap laid by unsupple minds to catch themselves changing and growing into new selves more suited to the new day. It’s as if people were holding their breath, stopping their blood from flowing, not thinking new thoughts. Not daring to live.

One thing is certain: rigidity of consciousness is a catatonic state of mind that locks the living world into a dead cartoon of the world as it might be if we but opened our eyes. What are we to do? Release the past from the chains we’ve put round it and let it go. I am not—and cannot be—the child I was, or the man I hoped to become. I am wholly other because I have given myself to my environment as it flows through my senses. I am none other than a creature of my time and place on this planet. I turn with the Earth so that I can be fully what it makes of me. That way, I evolve. That is the only way I can enjoy the ride—which is the trip of a lifetime. My lifetime. My days as a conscious son of the Earth.

No, they don’t teach that in school. Everyone is too anxious to leave young minds up to chance. We invent curriculums and standardized tests, which are mental chains in themselves. Think of the irony of a gang of unique kids being herded into one end of the education system and cranked out as a uniform standard product at the other end. What has been lost in the process is the quality of individual uniqueness, sole fount of imagination, invention, and ultimately, survival under ever-changing yet unique circumstances and conditions. That is, our humanity has been stripped away because, by biological definition, each of us is unlike any other.

What a difference it makes to conceive of yourself as a unique being instead of a replica of everyone else. That way, you can reinvent yourself as you choose and don’t have to live up to the identity laid upon you by the expectations of your peers. Are you living for them? Is that how it is? They are your guides and masters, your controllers? Your life is an extension of theirs? If so, that is because you have already surrendered and are dead but don’t know it.

Let go of all that. Open yourself to discovery. Let the world in through your senses, not those of celebrities, columnists, loud talkers, or pundits. Activate your own mapping skills so that you live in your own personal territory, not the cell assigned to you. That territory is in your head and belongs solely to you. Never trade it away for any reason. Live by your own wits, not the dictates of others. Open yourself to the sensory patterns flowing around you; immerse yourself in them. Deal with the patterns of your time and your place on this Earth. Then lay meaning on those patterns as best you can account for them. And act on those meanings to see if they are accurate or not. If not, try again—something different this time. Not always the same as if you were a stone warrior, a true believer in the single, true faith.

That’s what I mean by “letting go.” Really, becoming yourself and fulfilling the potential you were born to. Is there any other way to live? Evidently there is—many of us dragging in chains our whole lives, thinking thoughts approved by others in advance. And consorting only with those who categorize their sensory worlds as we do, because it is much too dangerous to stake out individual territories for ourselves.

With the result that we are not truly alive, or truly ourselves, but are some kind of zooid living out a life sentence, hoping it will end soon, without pain or mishap. Which means not taking the risk of making ourselves happen in the world as if each of us were an individual capable of independent action, thought, and responsibility. Trapped by outdated ideas, we live in the old days, as we have been taught. Discovering freedom requires us to let go of all that. We have the mental equipment to do it. And a methodology for knowing ourselves as categorizers and sensory pattern detectors (go back and read this blog if you missed that part) who make their own worlds. Mental chains are a challenge meant to be mastered—as Alexander undid the Gordian Knot.

Gordian Knot Pattern

 

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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)

 

First drafts reveal a writer’s mind at work in real time. Subsequent edits lessen the integrity of that first record even if they might improve its orderliness. It is risky taking polished writing as evidence of a writer’s creative process. In Thoreau’s case, he frequently reworked his journal entries, and perhaps made changes suggested by others. So in trying to reconstruct his mental state from evidence provided by a paragraph in Walden, I am in danger of skidding on black ice. Upfront I am forced to admit that the Thoreauvian mind I point to may be a pure fiction, or at best a hybrid of my consciousness mixed with his.

 

For starters, I offer this single sentence from the section on shelter in the first chapter of Walden where Thoreau recounts gathering materials and preparing the site for his famous cabin in the woods: “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.” The reference to all houses—the very idea of a house—is the heart of the sentence. “A sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” is the arrow Thoreau aims at that heart to show how he intends it to be experienced. But without any supporting context, it seems farfetched and anything but clear. Some might claim this to be metaphor, but if it is, it is failed or ersatz metaphor because it lacks the setting necessary to allow interpretation.

 

Language, like consciousness itself, is situational. Its use and meaning depend on the setting in which it occurs. Without a grasp of that setting, words seem to tumble from the sky into minds ill prepared to receive them in the spirit the writer intends. This one sentence is not a metaphor at all—it is gibberish—because it is stripped from any situation which might make it meaningful. To remedy that deficiency, I here provide the relevant paragraph within which it is set. After telling how he got the planks and nails for his cabin, he goes on to describe in concrete detail his digging of the cellar hole:

 

I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south, where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumach and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any winter. The sides were left shelving, and not stoned; but the sun having never shone on them, the sand still keeps its place. It was but two hours’ work. I took particular pleasure in this breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the earth for an equable temperature. Under the most splendid house in the city is still to be found the cellar where they store their roots as of old, and long after the superstructure has disappeared posterity remark its dent in the earth. The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.

 

Here in a single paragraph are five of the chief ingredients of consciousness: motivation, perceptual details, feeling, conceptual meaning, and sense of order and progression (verging on the aesthetic). Motivation: need to store winter food in a year-round dwelling. Sensory details: side of hill, sloping south, woodchuck hole, sumach [we now do without the h] and blackberry roots, organic soil, size of hole, down to a layer of fine sand, shelving sides, dampness, two hours time. Feeling: pleasure in doing the job right, that is, in the traditional manner for the practical reason. Meaning: in hot climes or cold, in rural areas and cities, food preservation depends on root cellars with an equable temperature. Aesthetics: the recounting of the experience from details through feelings and understanding to grand consummation.

 

Only on that carefully laid foundation does Thoreau lay down the metaphor tying his experience together in one image: The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow. Without proper build-up, that sentence is merely a puzzle driving us to wonder what it means. Coming at the conclusion of the paragraph, we don’t have to wonder because we have been with Thoreau all the way as he shaped the image in his mind. It immediately explodes into our minds as a revelation or culmination on three fronts at once: his conscious experience of digging a root cellar, his writing about that experience, and our effort to share that experience through his writing.

 

The essence of creativity is to unite key dimensions of human consciousness into a coherent experience in which others can participate. When sensory patterns, feelings, and meanings combine, they can reach a critical mass that releases a burst of energy—not just in our brains—but throughout our bodies. Nerve signals and hormones confirm something of life importance has just occurred and is continuing to resonate here and now. Writing can convey that sense, as can music, art, dance, film, and other media of conscious excitation.

 

The paragraph quoted from Walden illustrates how aspects of consciousness can be brought to bear on one another in relationship to incite experiences larger and more meaningful than the sum of their parts. This is more than a matter of delight and entertainment. This is how we make sense of the world from our unique points of view. When the pieces fit, we feel we understand what is happening as participants in the event. Group energy and order are conveyed to us, and we reciprocate as best we can.

 

There is more to metaphor than meets ear or eye. It is an invitation to make meaning in new ways. This keeps the process of making meaning in sharp focus, where it cannot be taken for granted. As participants, we must do our part to keep the making of meaning in new ways alive in our experience. This alertness prevents meanings from becoming permanent fixtures of language—much as the dead are permanently dead, never to rise again. Dead languages fixed for all time kill the drive of their speakers to make meaning on their own.

 

If all has been said and written before, what’s the point of saying anything new or original? Of going beyond where we are now? Those who cling to past ways and expressions do not live in this world—the world of today. To claim that all wisdom is contained in the works of Plato or Aristotle, say, or the Qur’an, Torah, or Christian Testament is a denial of personal participation in the ongoing challenge of conscious life. When speech loses its novel, figurative quality, it ossifies into a literal form in which words are taken to mean exactly what they say and nothing more, as if the ancients had thought everything through for all time.

 

If that should happen to be true, how can anyone alive today hope to contribute to solving the problems yesterday has bequeathed to us? How can we direct our creative energies to undoing the mess people have made to now of living on planet Earth? No, if global warming, energy, poverty, healthcare, economics, and militarism are to be dealt with, it is up to those of us alive today to focus consciously and deliberately on the problems of today. In his time, Plato had his turn, followed by Aristotle, Jesus, Mohammed, Thoreau, and all the rest. Now it is Barack Obama’s turn to unify the diverse constituents of modern-day consciousness, and so confront them. Not for us, but with us all the way.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

How were you brought up? Did you have to go tinkle, pee-pee, wee-wee, take a pee or a piss, urinate, make water, or go number 1? In my family we spoke of breasts as huddies, younger members often having a giggle fit of self-consciousness when we tried to utter the word. Each of us is born into a language community or, more likely, a set of nested or overlapping language communities (family, friends, school, town, polite society, etc.). It was the conventional terms and ways of speaking in these communities we dutifully mimicked in acquiring the natural language we took as our native tongue.

 

The way we spoke at home was our family brand of literal language, which always said what we meant it to say because that’s how we were brought up. Other families were weird in speaking somewhat differently. Ours was normal language, theirs a twisted variation that seemed foreign. My friend Billy I. always said brefuk when he meant breakfast. Bob S. turned the sound of -ing into -een, as in goeen skeen for going skiing. Families used a variety of terms in referring to brothers and sisters, parents, and grandparents.

 

But all in all, we learned how normal people spoke in our neck of the woods. That was the neighborhood code governing literal language—as if by rule—but actually more by the flow of custom and convention in what people actually said. Out of the give and take of everyday life, we formed a language-using community in which meanings were mutually understood. We usually didn’t have to think about it, it just happened.

 

Literal language conforms to the abstract ideal that speakers use in recognizing certain phrases as being meaningful in their community. This ideal is independent of time and place, user or occasion. It is not a matter of rules but of anticipating the range of things that might be said in different situations. Literal language is predictable or probable language. The language we are likely to meet in daily life.

 

Figurative or metaphorical language is something else again. It defies the linguistic expectancies we so painstakingly piece together in experience. Literal language conforms to the code; metaphorical language jumps over the code to create a new way of speaking—of making meaning. “You’re a turkey,” “a skunk,” “a snake in the grass.” Literal language conforms to what we expect people say on a given occasion. Metaphors play against those expectations in surprising us with something new. Suddenly consciousness bursts on the scene, for speaker and listener both.

 

As an example, I offer two sentences by Alexandra Vacroux from her article, How to warm US-Russia relations (Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 26, 2009). “At the moment, the Russian bear is wounded.” She goes on to cite Russian anxiety and insecurity in the global commodity crisis, dealings with Ukraine, a fearsome new treason law. Then sums up her position, “Injured animals are dangerous, and need to be approached carefully.” Russia/Russian bear/Injured animal—this is a three-tiered metaphor that picks up powerful meaning as it develops.

 

Metaphorical language involves improbable or unexpected utterances which jolt us out of our meaning-making habits. It stretches our conventions of understanding by violating the expected match between expression and occasion. This creates a tension between what was expected and what was delivered. Shazam! We are fully awake and paying attention. Metaphor is not only a new way of saying but a new way of meaning. Without warning, it gets to the core of language.

 

Metaphor rocks not only our expectations of usage but the way we size-up the situations to which we apply language in the first place. It arises from (and invokes) a novel perspective as an alternative to the conventional point of view. Metaphor forces us to expand ourselves and become different people than convention would have us be. It forces us to outgrow our customary limitations.

 

If the conventional point of view is based upon unwitting acceptance of words meaning what they say, then metaphor is based upon a rival accounting for the world and its language. Words in that new world mean what speakers intend them to say, and it is the hearer’s job to figure out what that might be. Whoa! This is a new game entirely. We can’t just nod “Uh-uh,” but have to consciously wrestle with what we are hearing. As if we were inventing language all over again.

 

Which is one of the primary roles of figurative language. To rock us back on our heels so we pay deliberate attention to what is being said. And to what we want to say, but aren’t sure how. Metaphors represent alternate ways of accounting for the facts of daily life. Or more accurately, for the phenomena we encounter in consciousness, which are more than once removed from daily life. Metaphor does nothing less than force the sleepy language community to wake up and reinvent itself.

 

A metaphor is a little theory offered in opposition to the “natural” way of finding meaning in the world because, in truth, the meanings we find are often the very meanings we planted (or assumed were) there in the first place. Convention salts the mine of phenomena with meaning, while metaphor insists on uncovering the true gem itself.

 

By what phenomenologists call “the natural attitude,” we generally take it as given that the world our minds present to us is the one and only world that is out there within reach of our senses. Metaphor raises the possibility of an unnatural attitude by which we have to discover that outside world through probing exploration. Metaphor requires deliberate attention to such exploration by disrupting conventional ways of understanding the world. The point of metaphor is to not get caught napping. Don’t take meaning for granted. Question it. Check it out. Which requires active pursuit of meaning as a wild and elusive quarry rather than the passive acceptance of familiar (domestic) conventions.

 

Metaphor is exceptional language requiring deliberate and self-conscious attempts to establish meaning. That is why discussions of semantics and much of philosophy are set in metaphorical terms. To confront the mysterious outer world requires us to go beyond words that mean what they say to a new language that can venture beyond convention into the unknown. The intent is to transcend everyday, literal efforts at meaning-making. That effort requires nothing less than transcendent language itself. The language of metaphor.

 

(See Reflection 70: Metaphorical Brain for two other examples of metaphor.)

 

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(Copyright © 2008)

Two blogs ago, I dealt with music’s power, emotion, and immediacy in reaching into consciousness. Music doesn’t have to wait for the brain to tell consciousness what it means. Even in the case of program music, the program (meaning) is external to the music, as in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, thunderstorm and all. The storm is in the program you know about, not the music you hear. If you don’t know the program, then the music is all.

 

In this blog I will make a start at dealing with sensory phenomena that elicit meanings in experience so that the being of sensory patterns is fulfilled by the meanings they intend in consciousness. Spoken and written language offer examples of experiences composed of meaningful patterns, as do common signs and symbols such as traffic lights, sirens, and pictures of celebrities and famous places. Red traffic lights mean “stop” because we were taught to put the two together at an early age. The meaning is not in the red itself; it is in our brains which interpret that color as telling us to stop.

 

Consciousness is the place where sensory patterns (phenomena) and meanings are coupled together. When that happens, we get it! We understand. That is, we make a connection between two very different aspects of mental life—percepts from our senses and concepts from memory. Meaning does not reside in the world. It inhabits our minds, retained as latent concepts waiting to be activated by a relevant pattern in one sensory channel or another.

 

Meaning emerges when summoned by sensory phenomena we have been trained (or inspired) to receive as information, just as Pavlov’s dogs learned that the ringing of a bell meant food was about to be served. Information requires a context or situation to make it meaningful; without one or the other, it’s just meaningless sensory data. We learn early on that vocal utterances (words, phrases, sentences) mean something to others, and by imitating those others in appropriate situations, those utterances come to mean somewhat the same thing to us.

 

The following anecdote from one of my mother’s friends, told as a childhood reminiscence cherished for almost eighty years, provides a good example of one such early attempt to connect a sensory image with its meaning:

 

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.’

 

To be human is to strive to put meanings to sounds and appearances, and when deceived, to try again. If we spell “banana,” “m-o-o-n,” while those around us disagree, do we not remember it all our lives, along with all the other times our judgments were found to be out of joint? Do we not learn from such occasions? Is any experience not centered upon the desire to attach meanings appropriately to the sensory patterns we pluck from our situations as we construe them? We belong to a tribe of meaning-makers. We may not always be wise, but we are ever game to try again.

 

“Look, out the window, dear.” “Goggie.” “And over there” “Goggie.” “And what about that one?” “Goggie.” “No, that’s not a doggie, it’s a kitty.” “Kikky.”

 

Slowly over time, concepts accrue in memory as categories containing common features derived from a series of experiences somewhat resembling one another. When we fit a new pattern in experience together with such a category, we see that pattern as an example extending or fulfilling the series. The coupling can be so tight, it’s almost as if the pattern exuded the meaning from its own nature—as if the phenomenon were meaningful in itself. Which someone else may intend, but the meaning is in the mind, not the phenomenon.

 

Meanings are always our doing. Depending on their situations and experience, different people will cast a variety of meanings onto one and the same sensory pattern of being. I cannot digest gluten, which is in everything made of wheat, rye, or barley. Donuts, pizza, seven-grain bread, and chocolate-chip cookies may appeal to the masses, but I avoid them as if made of anthrax flour. To me they mean poison, not party treats, not wholesome food.

 

Whether you see true-believers or infidels in front of you depends on how you regard them in light of your past experience. In themselves they are neither because each is a unique being, not a category filler. Whether a knife is a useful tool or a bloody weapon depends on which category you sort it into when you wield it at the moment.

 

I’m living in Cambridge (some years ago). I wake up one night to hear someone in the street calling “fa” in a hoarse voice. Looking for his dog, I figure. Or his father. “Fa,” “fa,” he goes on. And on. Little Johnny One Note. “Fa.” “Fa.” I hear the sounds, but it holds no meaning for me. I doze off. Then it strikes me—he isn’t crying “Fa,” he’s yelling “Fire” at the top of his old lungs. I look out the window. Flames are shooting from the roof of the house across the street. I call the fire department.

 

Meaning-making can be a matter of survival. If we get it wrong, we may wake up dead. Our minds have evolved to do the best we can to match events with appropriate meanings in the situations we are in. What’s that noise downstairs? The wind? Noisy shutter? The cat? Burglar? Probably the furnace.

 

The matching works both ways: phenomena can seek meanings, and meanings can seek sensory presentations. If you’re in a hungry situation, you can start to visualize dinner. I remember a woman saying, “Men, you know how they are.” The meaning was already there; she didn’t have to spell it out. Which is like an old Quaker lady asking a friend of mine, “Is thee a member of the one true faith?” She was a particular meaning waiting to happen. More of us are like that than not. We broadcast meaningful expectations and hope the world will fill in the dotted lines.

 

Sometimes we don’t have either a phenomenon or a meaning to begin with. We’ve lost our bearings. What will tomorrow (the future) bring? How will our present situation develop, and what will it mean for us? There’s a lot of that around these days, what with the changing of the White House guard, the recession, global warming, wars in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, AIDS, the national debt. . . . In times like these, anxiety rules. Meaning keeps its distance. Stress is on the rise, which upsets consciousness. Dire or chaotic may be the best words we can come up with in describing our state of affairs. Invest in fortune tellers and astrologers; I expect them to thrive.

 

In the end, when we confront the full significance of our mortality, does anything remain but the tarnished spiral of our mortal coil, a shadowy track in the dust, bequeathed to those who stay behind on chance that someone will fit it to some kind of meaning?

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Children play a lot of games. So do adults. Often without realizing it.

 

A broom handle does not become a gun all by itself; it requires a child’s mind to make it one, to mean or intend it as a gun. In play, a special rule is placed on consciousness to allow such conversions as broom handles into guns, sticks into swords, stuffed animals into pets, dolls into babies. It all depends on adopting an attitude of let’s pretend which allows one concrete, existential thing to stand for another that is more abstract in being present to the mind as a concept or an idea. Playthings and toys allow children to experiment with attitudes and points of view by serving as bearers of experience no less meaningful than the real thing. For the time being, the child does not distinguish between the two modes of consciousness, the conventional and the pretend.

 

In my 1982 dissertation I wrote:

 

To view a stick as a sword takes a point of view in which the meaning bestowed upon the existential shape, “stick,” is that of “sword.” Given the proper attitude, anything can be discriminated as anything else. Chessmen, checkers, even pebbles, can assume the burden of “good” guys and “bad.” If the attitude is one characterized by giving care, then any item or collection can serve as an existential object of that care, be it a scruffy mongrel or a wildflower pressed between the pages of a book. Adults often play as children do, bestowing meanings upon baseball teams and games of cards as if they filled a need for tension or excitement, social contact or a sense of belonging. Songs, films, TV programs, dramas, electronic games, literature—all offer us structures within which to pour our meanings, existential patterns to interpret according to our own perspectives.

 

That’s a pretty sweeping statement and I would write it differently today, but the gist of it is that consciousness, at base, is meaning-making by which sensory phenomena (patterns or images of some sort, visual, auditory, tactile, or olfactory) are apprehended from the standpoint of a particular attitude, so achieving a kind of meaning as if it inhered in the mental phenomena themselves. Thus for present purposes a stick becomes a sword, a lottery ticket a ray of hope.

 

Child’s play is no more trivial than our faculty of imagination. Both are rooted in the attitude of let’s pretend (suspension of disbelief), which is at the heart of consciousness itself. Without it, we have no passport that will allow us to translate past experiences into future actions or preparedness. We know the past is gone and can never come again, but let’s act instead as if the future is an extension of the past so we don’t lose our bearings. Child’s play is above all meaningful, and meaning is at the core of every life situation. And every life history, and every life scenario as it plays out.

 

Let’s pretend the Patriots-Red Sox-Celtics are going to win the championship series. Who among us has not entertained such a wished-for conviction and lived it as a sure thing? Who has not backed candidates for public office? Bet on dark horses and forlorn hopes? Been gripped by a movie or theatrical performance? Married an almost total stranger? Braved public roads confident they would arrive safe and sound? Promised to pay down their mounting credit-card debt before buying anything more? Pledged to abstain from excessive sex, alcohol, tobacco during the coming year? These are all examples of imagination and, yes, pretense. Much of consciousness is devoted to such as if states of mind. Even God is paradoxically on the side of every believer as each one’s invisible friend.

 

Of course we deny all of this. The illusion is totally convincing: our senses open onto the real world, the only world that is. Except that our mental apparatus intercedes for us in every case, rendering colors, contrasts, shapes, vibrations, objects, and other beings as we experience them after the fact. What they “are” in themselves on the far side of the apparatus that gives them to us we cannot know or imagine.

 

I regard the blue I see as the blue of the sky “out there,” even though I know that out there consists not of colors but photons hurling in on me bearing different amounts of energy. I know that out there the sun doesn’t rise or set but serves as a reference point while Earth rotates “beneath” it. I know that my brain has evolved to distinguish motion from stillness, sound from silence, something from nothing—but I have no confidence that the scenes-sounds-scents I am aware of bear a one-to-one relationship to the alleged world on the far side of my senses. I take that world as it is given me in consciousness, knowing full well that the person standing next to me is granted a different version playing parallel to mine. If our histories and expectations differ—as in varying degrees they must—then the feedback we take in is bound to reflect those differences.

 

My consciousness is my consciousness. Yours is yours. We have much to talk about if we are to reconcile the fundamental differences between your world of make-believe and mine. Consciousness is a creative act. The one thing we can be sure of is that neither of us has immediate access to the mystery beyond.

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