497. Afterword

April 30, 2015

Cultural ideas (memes), once they become widely accepted or have even gone “viral,” develop a strong resistance to change. The idea of “artificial intelligence,” from a fanciful oxymoron (contradiction in terms because no one knows what authentic intelligence might be), has become the watchword of a burgeoning industry and is here to stay until it is replaced by the Next Big Thing that becomes culturally contagious.

I have used the word “inertia” to describe a cultural idea’s resistance to change. Once popularly accepted, it leads a life of its own. That is, once its collective memory achieves a critical mass within the human population, it becomes a contributor to our everyday system of belief.

Even after gravitational force, evolution, genetics, DNA, and both galactic and stellar evolution became fixtures of our cultural view of the universe (thanks to Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Tycho, Newton, Darwin, Franklin-Watson-Crick, and tens-of-thousands of others), the anthropocentric notion that humankind is the central focus of a god-driven universe persists, as if the sun and stars were still believed to revolve about us—we who give meaning to godly creation simply because we are born to that tenacious meme from our mistaken point of view.

Cultural inertia is a disease more deadening than ebola or dengue fever. It kills off tender minds of both children and adults well before their time. That is because the basis of perception is recognition enabled by memory, not any sensory impressions formed in the instant. We see largely what we have seen before and are familiar with. We grow uncomfortable when beyond the range of our past experience. Novelty in our eyes may capture our attention, but that doesn’t mean we accept, like, or understand it.

Ideas that become part of our general culture are usually put forward by groups that stand to profit from their acceptance. Economic theory flows from those who stand to make money, not from the host of disadvantaged others. Military theory flows from those who fight wars at a distance. Theology flows from those dependent on entire flocks of believers. Penal theory is proposed by those outside prison walls. Art theory blows on the winds of change, novelty, and aesthetic outrage.

Why am I reminding you of this? Because we are all heavily invested in our personal experience, existing as we do at the leading edge of our beliefs. And that edge is always pro or con, positive or negative, for or against—in a word, polarized. There it is, a double-edged sword at the heart of our beliefs. And that makes the world we live in polarized as a result of our thrusting our particular edge outward in our actions, frowns, smiles, and gestures of rejection or acceptance.

There are two sides to every truth, meme, and conviction. We’re either for-or-against it because that is how our minds work, balancing pros and cons, activations and inhibitions, two sides of every question. Yes or no. Yea or nay. Go or stop. Stay or leave. Fast or slow. Cold or hot. Sweet or sour. Brave or chicken. Rich or poor. Smart or dumb. Guilty or innocent. All or nothing.

We frame our options for doing anything at all in two columns, pro and con. Then we list the reasons for taking a particular action against the reasons for not taking it. We add up the two columns. The one with the most checkmarks wins. Yes, we are that simple minded.

Our muscles either flex or relax. What signal should we send? Uncertainty or hesitation leads to disaster. Timing is of the essence; the enemy is fast approaching. Now is our chance to decide. What should we do? How do we vote? Count us in or out? Subtlety is for wimps. Real men and women know right from wrong in any situation, and always do the right thing. Or, that is the popular myth.

Choices, nothing but choices. That is precisely why we have minds that engage with events and make decisions what to do. No matter how we decide, once we go one way or the other, we face another decision, which invariably leads to a train of others after that.

What if you had turned left and not right that day you met the girl who became your girlfriend who became your wife who bore your children who now have children of their own? What if, what if, what if. But you didn’t turn left, you turned right, and that has made all the difference throughout your life.

Speaking of what ifs, picture your genealogical tree for the past five generations, from your parents to their parents to their parents to their parents to their parents. Your parents to your great-great-great-grandparents. That’s a century’s worth of your family and recent genetic heritage, 126 people, all making countless decisions every day of their lives, all those decisions contributing to you and your specific genome. Not just contributing to, but focusing on you. If any one of them had lived differently, had gotten sick at the wrong time, had gone off to war, had fallen off a horse, had run a red light, had served chicken (with hidden bones) and not roast beef for dinner—where and who would you be today?

Think about it. Without consciousness that can weigh options and make decisions, and act on those decisions by tensing one set of muscles while relaxing others—none of us would be who we are today.

Yes, consciousness makes all the difference between living as a person and living as a mushroom, or even another person in our own family-community-culture-precinct of nature. What if we’d been born on another planet circling another sun in another galaxy? Wherever we are, consciousness is our guide every millisecond of every day of our lives.

How ironic is it, then, that we barely understand our own conscious processes, our own intelligence, our own opinions, fashions, fads, annoyances, habits, routines, prejudices, and orthodox beliefs? Our schools are all aimed outward into the world of memes, ideas, and traditions, not at the minds we bring with our lunchboxes and faithfully present to our homeroom teacher when we answer “Here” when she calls out our name.

Instead of fighting wars or trying to make a killing on Wall Street, why aren’t we all doing everything we can to understand our own minds to avoid doing more harm than good in the world?

Why, in particular, do we cling to ways and beliefs we don’t understand, yet commit ourselves to out of personal and cultural inertia? As if we were automatons or robots or zombies or idiots?

I’ve said it before and will say it here one last time: Know Thyself! Why else are we here?

Trust, love, play, loyalty, and relationships are all subject to rules that almost everyone concerned can agree on. I think of them as rules of engagement, of linking action to perception, self to other(s), individuals to society. Community is a web of interactions, always changing, never twice the same two days in a row, but promoting engagement nonetheless.

Reduced to a concept, community sounds like a fixed thing, but it is alive because each of its members is alive, and the exact configuration of events is unpredictable. The Fourth of July Parade comes around every year, but, too, it is different each time. Different personnel, different bands, different floats, different fireworks, different weather, different watchers along the route—but the same, enduring communal institution so that we refer to it as a fixture of communal life because subject each year to much the same rules and traditions. We are a year older each time, with another year’s experience put away, but we are the same people engaging much as we always have with others, who are also different but look much the same to us.

It is the differences within the envelope of sameness that we pay particular attention to, and differentially respond to. We don’t want this year’s parade to resemble last year’s too closely. We want to be pleasantly surprised, excited, involved—engaged in our minds. Otherwise we lose interest and turn away, or don’t show up at all.

We need the stimulation that differences provide us or we don’t even notice what’s happening. The same-old, same-old shuts us down, turns consciousness off, fails to catch our attention. Dullsville, Inc. Change the channel; find something better to do. Make new friends. Buy a new dress. Get a new drill bit or new App. Order something new at that restaurant that just opened.

Novelty promotes engagement because it takes us beyond where we were toward where we want to go. We are wayfarers precisely because we’re en route to somewhere we’ve never been.

We hunger for novel experience to break up the essential routines we depend on in getting through the day. Finding something to wear, packing a lunch, getting the kids off to school, going to work, eating lunch, coming home.

Yes, we need the stability provided by such familiar routines, but at the same time we want those engagements to be special in being particularly noticeable because they stand out from the background of everyday routines.

So we acquire a repertory of tricks to spice things up as if they were new. This time we make our own Valentine’s Day cards, knit a new scarf, pack a surprise in the lunch box, put in a row of scarlet runner beans, eat with chop sticks, fast for a day, read a book instead of watching TV.

We don’t want to rock the boat, just shake it enough to sharpen our attention. Do enough to spark up a long-term relationship. To keep things from running down and getting dull. We do this in so many ways—getting our hair cut, trying a new stud, tattoo, or shade of lipstick, telling a joke, this time bringing flowers and a bottle of wine—it barely needs mentioning. Except these are reflections of our minds in action. Stimulating lagging relationships. Avoiding being taken for granted. Staying perky, bright, and attractive so the right people will notice and stay as engaged with us as they were in the old days.

There is a whole layer of unwritten rules beneath the familiar rules of the game to keep consciousness alive and well by being well-fed on novelty. Things our mother never taught us because she thought they were obvious and didn’t need saying. Things we missed because we weren’t ready or weren’t paying attention.

Communities are built by sustaining a host of ongoing engagements that don’t turn sour because of casual indifference. Active communities promote engagements between their members; they don’t just sit and wait for something to happen. The movers and shakers in a community take turns making it an exciting, inviting, and enjoyable place to live. A place hospitable to consciousness.

 

My tracking horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay soon took over my mind. I did my best to think like a horseshoe crab in figuring out which way it had gone from where I’d last heard its signal. As my skills improved over the months, I got pretty good at keeping track of them day-by-day on their separate excursions. But, too, I kept losing them.

Sometimes there would be intervals of several days between tracking sessions due to wind and weather, leading me to become pretty much a fair-weather tracker. As a result I’d lose sight of the ones I’d been following, and had to make a fresh start when I’d next get out on the bay.

We expected the transmitter batteries to run down after two years, but we got a good part of a third tracking season (2005) out of them before they finally died (the batteries, not the crabs, which can live for about twenty years in the wild).

I was surprised to learn how passionate I became about following twenty-six individual crabs in their travels about the bay. I quickly became truly engaged in the project. I cared about finding each crab and I’d worry when I lost track of it. I’d go searching for it until I (sometimes) found it again or got the feeling I’d lost it forever.

My engagement led me to try to connect with each crab. To put myself in its place as if I were the traveler on the bottom trying to figure where to go next. To do that I had to have a good sense of the terrain, the currents, the temperature gradients, the mussel and eelgrass beds—the entire habitat area beneath me that I couldn’t see, but could imagine at high tide while tracking because of my earlier experiences in the same area when the tide was low.

Engagements are a two-way street. If I wanted to hear from my select population of horseshoe crabs, I’d have to pay attention to them. To put myself out there on the bottom where they were. I’d have to make room for their concerns in my agenda. To do that, I’d have to learn to think like horseshoe crabs think. To understand the motives that guided their travels.

Was that possible, or was that my conceit? Well, if I pushed myself, maybe I could do better. After all, I wasn’t tracking for my benefit but for theirs. I had their best interests at heart. Or so I told myself. I’m doing this for you, dear one. And for you, and for you.

I think what I was getting at was a sense of commitment. Not duty to my job, but commitment to another species entirely that happened to live near me. An outlying population of a species that humans could put at risk out of carelessness, out of not knowing where they were or what they needed to survive.

After all, for many years people had shoveled horseshoe crabs into piles to use as fertilizer. Or conch bait. Even some Native Americans put horseshoe crabs under the squash and corn they planted, sacrificing the crabs for the betterment of their crops.

But I felt moved to connect with the crabs I was tracking, to help them thrive. As they had thrived for almost half-a-billion years on their own without my caring assistance. I felt an intimate kinship with horseshoe crabs, and admired the beauty and graceful functionality of their bodies. They can swim legs-down or legs-up, pushing ahead by pumping their gills back and forth. They can walk on the bottom, dig in muddy or sandy sediments, eat bountiful small mollusks, and fight infection with copper-based blood that congeals to heal wounds. They are proven survivors adapted to estuary habitats, largely unchanged for some 400 million years.

My mind goes out to horseshoe crabs, and every sighting thrills me head-to-toe. Being of such ancient design and so beautiful, they have an undying claim on my attention. I am caught in the spell of their attractiveness, and because I will never be able to understand them, there will always be that discrepancy urging me on to further engagements with members of their august species.

I respond by being with them and interacting however I can: tracking their travels, monitoring their breeding populations, photographing them, making PowerPoint presentations to sensitize others to their presence among us, sharing my respect and enthusiasm. I have an extensive library on horseshoe crabs, and samples of their shed shells on the shelves and walls in my apartment. I surround my nest with reminders that they exist in my presence.

Because of my several engagements with them, they have become fixtures in my daily life. And because of the incongruity with other features of my experience, they introduce a sense of discrepancy or discontinuity that prods my consciousness into full wakefulness so that I pay attention to their tenuous placement in the modern world.

That alerting discrepancy makes all the difference in my including horseshoe crabs in the scope of my daily concern and attention. That is why I have tracked them, read about them, traced their line of descent from trilobites, and photograph them every chance I get. Discrepancy is the spark that ignites into allure, inviting me out of my sheltered mind into the world. Even if I am not very good at tracking horseshoe crabs, I have felt compelled to improve.

Horseshoe crabs and eelgrass meadows call me in that way, as do hermit thrushes, song sparrows, fairy webs, and old man’s beard. It isn’t what I understand that makes my world; it’s what I don’t know because it is just beyond my reach. Without novelty, beauty, allure, disparity, and surprise, engagement reduces to habit, and mindless habits eat away the wonder of being alive and alert to discrepancy.

In a very real sense, I am possessed by horseshoe crabs, and as a result, have become possessive of them in return. The root of ownership is in just that sense of possession through engagement. Engagement makes a claim on my attention. Engagement works both ways. I “own” what I engage with, and it owns my interest and attention.

The circle of engagement is complete. Perception leads to action leads to engagement leads back to perception. I have earlier compared that situation to the image of the ancient serpent Uroborus biting its own tail. The point being that such gripping engagement unites its parts into a unitary whole.

Devoted engagement brings its separate elements together into a single event. I am part of horseshoe crab existence in Taunton Bay by tracking their every move; they, in turn, become an integral part of my experience by changing the mind at the core of my being.

No wonder we get possessive of who or what we engage with. Our experience binds us together, and our experience becomes part of our minds, enriching us, making us part of a larger whole. As integral parts of my experience in nature, horseshoe crabs become aspects of my identity. Together, in my mind, we become joined together as an item. We are openly engaged, with all the emotional attachment that implies.

With memory always in the background, the flow of sensory stimulation proceeds—courtesy of arousal, curiosity, expectancy, and attention—from sensory receptors to the formation of sensory patterns (impressions or phenomena if not formal patterns) in conscious awareness.

Interacting with memory, those patterns are judged to be either recognizable or novel. If recognized, they are welcomed into one family or another of sensory experiences and given the family name (that’s a dog, a cat, an elephant, etc.); if novel, they are either skipped over as strangers, or given extra scrutiny in order to fit them to the closest family resemblance that makes them meaningful.

At which point we cease engaging perceptually with that incoming pattern of energy and shift to dealing with its conceptual meaning, giving it place in our hierarchy of meaningful understandings of how named patterns of energy fit together within the structure of our experience of such patterns as we are able to sort and recognize them as being related one to another.

In my view, personal consciousness asks three questions during the processing of incoming sensory stimulation:

  1. What’s happening?
  2. What does that mean in the context of my current situation?
  3. What, if anything, can I, or should I, do?

The first question is framed  by the mental department of sensory perception. The second question is framed by the department of personal meaning in the here and now. The third question is framed by the department of action appropriate to the answers given to the first two questions.

I gather those three parts into the process of situated intelligence, which, given our current situation, comes up with a judgment on how best to proceed so that our response fits with our understanding of just that particular situation. Our intelligence, that is, is not a general property we possess so much as a sense of familiarity in dealing with certain types of problems (predicaments) due to our training or lifetime experience.

No one is a match for all problems. That is why we specialize as mathematicians, tennis players, welders, diplomats, street sweepers, and so on. And why our skills improve with dedicated rehearsal, practice, and performance over and over again.

Without apology, I can truly state that I am the world’s leading expert on the mental goings-on within my personal black box according to the perspectives provided by my own mind from inside that box. You can make the same claim for yourself.

Other than by my personal understanding as based on my reading in psychology and neuroscience, I have no authority to speak about events taking place on a neurochemical level in any brain whatsoever.

Brain is implicit in mind at every stage of engagement. So too is the perceptual energy flowing through pathways within the brain, energy that reflects its spatial and temporal organization upon being translated into neural terms by our body’s sensory receptors.

Though my view of these processes has been formed during a long course of self-reflection, I generalize here by writing variously in reference to “I,” “you,” and “we” as if I were intimately acquainted with mental events in everyone’s brain (including yours). I do this to encourage readers to take part in the mental exercise I am performing on myself, so to offer other wayfarers an opportunity for self-discovery in light of their own experience. Feel free to modify my offer as you see fit so that your findings are your own.

Personal memory plays in the background of every engagement as called for by the different situations and patterns of stimulation we encounter. This provides a backstory that helps us translate what is happening into the familiar terms of our mental understanding.

The plot runs like this: starting with arousal so that memory is poised to entertain signals stirred by our readiness to pay attention, an inner sense of the current situation we are dealing with focuses expectancy on what is likely to happen.

What we notice in particular is deviations from, or exceptions to, our expectancies. Novel features catch our attention because they have much to tell us in relation to the pattern of what we expected to find, which instantly becomes background to what actually strikes our senses.

Looking up from a hospital bed (where I was having stitches put in my hand after a recent fall on slippery shoreline rocks), I noticed, not the pattern of white netting that attached the curtain around my bed to a track in the ceiling, but the one-inch hole in that netting that formed a black exception to the white regularity of that grid of fibers.

Attention is drawn to the buzzing fly that is a conspicuous exception to the silence around us, to the lightning striking out of dark clouds, to the silhouette of the sole sandpiper running along the tideline, to the stain on the white tablecloth, the cough arising from a rapt audience, the new rattle in our car, and so on.

Expectancy establishes the pattern of what we are used to seeing; attention rushes in to focus on particular details that stand out against the background of those expectations.

 

(Copyright © 2009)

The “It” in the title refers to my understanding of my personal consciousness as made up of various processes which I am able to identify through self-reflective experience. In the order they come to mind (not the order in which they kick in), they include:

1. Arousal informs me I am more awake than asleep, definitely not in a stupor or coma.

2. Alertness seems to be an attitude preparing me for paying attention. I sense something’s up—or might be up.

3. Attention is a kind of outreach I direct or extend via my senses—looking, listening, sniffing, tasting, touching, or heeding what my body has to tell me. Attending to comes before consciousness of. That is, expectancy precedes its fulfillment in perception.

4. Expectancy is a kind of pre-viewing or pre-engagement made possible by my point of view at the time as informed by my values, interests, concerns, and feelings. Expectancy is situational in that it arises from what has gone before, in either the immediate or remote past. Memory is clearly involved in projecting the familiar onto the current scene of the now. Expectancy is largely abstract (less detailed than actual perception) and conceptual, that is, derived from a set of earlier perceptions, but lacking the concrete particulars of any one of them.

5. Fulfillment of expectancy (or not, as the case may be) is a flash of recognition by which the object of my attention is identified as that which I was looking for, so that consciousness acquires intentionality in being consciousness of . . . one thing or another. Specific details in the now give substance to the abstract envelope of expectancy as if the two aspects of consciousness—abstract expectation and concrete perception —came together in a fulfilling, mutual engagement.

6. That engagement has a quality of salience representing the degree to which my motivated expectancy (hopes, fears, desires) is being met in the current episode of awareness—at an appropriate level of discernment. Enabling me to make a judgment confirming or disconfirming this is what I was looking for, or had in mind in the first place.

7. The comings together of concepts and percepts lead to a sense of understanding, of my self standing under (supporting) this new instance of consciousness, taking it in, reaffirming my grasp of (or relationship to) the world, conveying a sense of my being of that world, providing a strong sense of affirmation that my grasp is appropriate to my situation.

8. If my expectations are fulfilled in a new or surprising way, then surprise and novelty play roles in consciousness, stretching my understanding in order to accommodate or incorporate an instance I did not anticipate, challenging or perhaps enlarging my understanding. This gives me the option of fulfilling my expectations by habitual application of a tried-and-true response to account for, discredit, or dismiss this unanticipated episode of experience. Or, on the other hand, of opening myself up to new experience in such a way that expands my grasp of the current situation. (Note: This is what I was laboring over in my last post, Reflection 151: Error Signals, that effort prompting me to simplify the matter and place it in context in today’s reflection.)

9. All of which can culminate in new learning, or reaffirmation of my prior understanding. At this stage, clearly, memory is involved. Earlier synaptic connections are affirmed, or perhaps an effort to establish new ones as a basis for improving the effectiveness of my actions in the world is made possible.

10. All leading up to reaffirming or improving my being in the world through planning leading to effective action by equipping me to make myself happen more aptly in light of my circumstances, which is the point of being conscious in the first place.

In the order I present them here, that’s: arousal, alertness, attention, expectancy, fulfillment, salience, understanding, novelty, learning, and action. In addition, I would stress the roles of perception, conception, and memory as major players in consciousness, for a baker’s dozen of topics to whirl in the mind much as jugglers whirl Indian clubs in the air. Any scientist of the mind could probably double or triple that number, but that’s as many as seem particularly relevant to me today in keeping this reflection as straightforward as I can make it.

Consciousness as a Machine, by Rube Goldberg

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

The biblical Book of Job is the story of a “devout and prosperous man” suffering physical misery from unknown causes. He attributes his suffering to God punishing him unjustly. Job’s friends say that God would never punish an innocent man; therefore, Job must be wicked. Job insists on his piety and innocence. In the end, God puts in an appearance as the omnipotent creator and judge of the universe, and proceeds to scoff at Job’s puny understanding in comparison to his own wisdom, and Job’s physical weakness in comparison to the mighty crocodile, God’s chief of beasts.

 

What could Job answer to that? Awed by God’s argument and physical presence, he admits he is out of his depth, comes to despise himself, and duly repents.

 

The rhetorical structure of this tale is similar to a court of law in which Job is the injured plaintiff, his “friends” witness against him, and God plays the role of presiding judge. From the outset, Job appears set up to score a moral point for the court itself rather than receive justice. The suffering at the heart of his quarrel with God is judged to be irrelevant. The outcome is rigged in favor of religious instruction: Without complaint, accept suffering as the will of God the Almighty!

 

God’s argument consists chiefly of listing his powers and accomplishments. Job’s suffering is beside the point. Job can’t perform any of the feats God lists in his resume, therefore the plight of this no-account human before him is of no interest to one who has far weightier responsibilities.

 

The irony being that God, we know now, has none of the knowledge or powers he claims for himself. The Almighty comes off as haughty and pretentious, whereas Job leaves no doubt that his suffering is real and unbearable (quotes from The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition, 1976):

 

My body is infested with worms,

and scabs cover my skin (Job 7.5).

 

My brothers hold aloof from me,

my friends are utterly estranged from me;

my kinsmen and intimates fall away,

my retainers have forgotten me;

my slave-girls treat me as a stranger,

I have become an alien in their eyes,

I summon my slave, but he does not answer,

though I entreat him as a favor.

My breath is noisome to my wife,

and I stink in the nostrils of my own family.

Mere children despise me

and, when I rise, turn their backs on me;

my intimate companions loathe me,

and those whom I love have turned against me.

My bones stick out through my skin,

and I gnaw my under-lip with my teeth (Job 19.13-20).

 

Job’s friends say or infer that he is being punished because he is wicked. Eliphaz the Temanite says, for instance:

 

For consider, what innocent man has ever perished?

Where have you seen the upright destroyed?

          This I know, that those who plough mischief and

sow trouble

          reap as they have sown;

          they perish at the blast of God

          and are shriveled by the breath of his nostrils

(Job 4.7-9).

 

And later adds:

 

Do not think that [God] reproves you because

you are pious,

          that on this count he brings you to trial.

No: it is because you are a very wicked man,

          and your depravity passes all bounds (Job 22.4-5).

 

To this slander, Job responds:

 

I swear by God, who has denied me justice,

          and by the Almighty, who has filled me with bitterness:

          so long as there is any life left in me

          and God’s breath is in my nostrils,

          no untrue word shall pass my lips

          and my tongue shall utter no falsehood.

          God forbid that I should allow you to be right;

          till death, I will not abandon my claim to innocence

(Job 26.2-5).

 

          Let God weigh me in the scales of justice,

          and he will know that I am innocent! (Job 31.6.)

 

In the end, out of the whirlwind, God confronts Job:

 

Who is this whose ignorant words

          cloud my design in darkness?

          Brace yourself and stand up like a man;

          I will ask questions, and you shall answer.

          Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?

(Job 38.2-4.)

 

In all your life have you ever called up the dawn

          or shown the morning its place? (Job 38.12.)

 

          Have you descended to the springs of the sea

          or walked in the unfathomable deep?

          Have the gates of death been revealed to you?

          Have you ever seen the door-keepers of the

place of darkness?

          Have you comprehended the vast expanse of

the world?

          Come, tell me all this, if you know.

          Which is the way to the home of light

          and where does darkness dwell? (Job 38.16-19.)

         

Has the rain a father?

          Who sired the drops of dew?

          Whose womb gave birth to the ice,

          and who was the mother of the frost from heaven,

          which lays a stony cover over the waters

          and freezes the expanse of ocean?

          Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades

          or loose Orion’s belt? (Job 38.28-31.)

         

          If you bid lightning speed on its way,

          will it say to you, ‘I am ready’? (Job 38.35.)

 

And so on. God assails Job with items of received wisdom 2,500 years old. This is fable, not history. This is mythology—man putting words in God’s mouth to achieve a certain effect. This is theater, not theology. The men who wrote and edited these words are long dead. Their life situations and perspectives cannot be imagined today, much less understood. Their consciousness at the time bore slight resemblance to the story of Job as we can interpret it. Modern consciousness has evolved to fit us to a different world than that of the fifth or sixth century B.C.E. And to a different concept of God, which must now contend with the Big Bang, evolution, and all that has been learned about human nature, the Earth, and its universe in the meantime.

 

A great deal of poetry is to be found in the Bible, along with wisdom, drama, history, and other matters of interest. But the framework that holds it together—the concept of God—is flawed in accounting for consciousness at the time it was written in terms that were to the advantage of a particular group having a vested interest in how God was portrayed. Which is, none other than the priestly profession, intent in those days on assuring its own power, influence, and wealth by spreading God fear and consciousness through the land. Their livelihood depended on overreaching themselves. People who made a living from God were not neutral in portraying the deeds, sayings, and attributes by which he was made known to others.

 

No matter how eloquent the rhetoric, no one can rightfully claim that such writings were aimed at conveying a higher sense of the truth. Job, for instance, was hoodwinked, both by his friends and his God. On the basis of its own internal evidence, this story makes little sense. No matter how strongly someone wants to believe such events actually happened, the proper genre for this piece is historical fiction. It was fiction when written; it remains fiction today.

 

Consciousness flows with the ages. It has come a long way in 2,500 years. In some minds, at least. In others, it has traveled a lesser journey. The mindset that claims such writings as the Book of Job reveal eternal truths in literal language—such mindsets exist at a more primitive stage of development than can grasp or grapple with what is happening in today’s world. Spiritual truth, poetic truth—these are apologies for consciousness having advanced beyond its lowly beginnings. That Bush 43 could pander to a constituency taking biblical writings as a guide to proper behavior in the 21st century speaks a terrifying truth: that consciousness has atrophied in a significant portion of the American mind. That wishful thinking replaces wisdom for those who fear the future, and so look backward to a past dressed in the familiar words and cadences of bygone eras. Beware all truths advanced as eternal.

 

Novelty is the essence of consciousness, not sameness. To live in the past is to prefer dead times to living. If we are not on the leading edge of our own consciousness, we are relying on less than our full potential deserves or requires. If we insist on clinging to past stages of consciousness, Earth will move on without us, leaving us pondering the likes of Job, looking for insights and wisdom in outmoded speeches written for effect in times that once were, but are lost to us now.

 

If you wake up as the same person you were yesterday, you can be neither fully conscious nor alive. I find that a very scary thought. If we live not on the edge, where are we situated? That is the question of the ages. If we are anywhere but in the foremost rank, we are probably not where we claim to be.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

I dream about seeing a hole in the sky. It is raining. A young boy is riding a tricycle as we walk up the street together, I in the lead, he behind. I fear he won’t be able to pedal against the runoff coming off the hill, but he pedals faster and plows like a boat through the water. The street dips and we go downhill for a ways and come to a log cabin surrounded by mud filled with exposed tree roots. I tell the boy that the rain made all that mud. The road, filled with mud, turns sharply to the right. Looking up, I see a round hole (like a smoke hole without the smoke) in the sky, or rather, a hole in a translucent dome above the rain. Through the hole I see clouds lit by the sun. My eyes zoom in on the hole so I can see it clearly. Outside and under the hole, the rain is made of dashed lines which remind me (in the dream) of the snow on black-and-white television screens in the 1950s. Through the hole the clouds are made of similar dashes moving at an angle to the rain. I recognize this as a very unusual situation. I have never seen a hole in the sky before in my entire life. I mention this to some people we meet. . . .

 

Waking up, I am still amazed by seeing a hole in the sky. A round hole at the zenith overhead. Probably several feet in diameter, big enough to put your head and body through if you could get up to it. Child, tricycle, street, hill, rain, cabin, mud, hole in the sky—this fragment of a dream is wholly engaging and seems convincingly real.

 

What to make of it? The situation is this: the boy and I are together, though our relationship is unclear. The street reminds me (now that I’m awake) of School Street in Andover, Massachusetts, where I lived in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I used to walk my toddler son around the block in those days, he exploring the walkway to every house while I waited out by the street. The rain reminds me of the dashed lines beneath clouds on the screen of the L.L. Bean weather station I got for my last birthday. I have seen tree stumps and roots in mud, but no particular incident comes to mind. Explaining the cause of the mud to the boy is very much me in my teacher mode. I can’t account for the log cabin. The hole in the sky is very much like the circle representing the sun on my weather station. When the station predicts that precipitation is about to end, dashed rain, clouds, and sun appear together on the screen, the disc of the sun seeming to emerge from behind the clouds. I never actually saw the sun in the dream; it was inferred from lit edges of clouds.

 

I often think about the edges of things—about how the brain sharpens the contrast between surfaces to heighten such edges, creating a kind of line-drawing cartoon that is more distinct than reality itself. The hole in the sky had a very distinct edge, slightly lighter than the dome it was in, like a hem of pale material folded back on itself. Which reminds me of my first experience with Mercator projections (Reflection 60: Discovery, February 6, 2009), because there would be no way to fold a circular hem in the dome of the sky without slitting or slashing it so the smaller area would fold over the larger. I can’t suggest that I was specifically aware of that problem in the dream; it feels more like something I added in processing the dream now that I am awake.

 

I was emotionally concerned about the boy on the tricycle—whether he could go against the flowing runoff or not. The strongest feeling I had was the sense of wonder at seeing a hole in the sky. All dreams have a novel cast about them, and that seemed precisely the point in this one. I seemed very much my everyday self in judging a hole in the sky to be a novel event, and therefore worth commenting on. Which is how my dreams often run while I, the dreamer, are my same old self. Dreams, that is, often place me-as-I-know-myself in bizarre situations.

 

Many of my dreams are about attending or teaching specific classes in school, which is not surprising since I spent 18 years of my life as a teacher and another 19 years as a student before that. But in dream after dream I am neglecting my duty by not showing up for class, or showing up for the class after being unaccountably absent for six months, or I am not prepared, or I know nothing about the subject I am expected to teach, or I’m not wearing any clothes, and so on. My dreamworld is made up of one bizarre situation after another, to which my conventional self is expected to make a fitting response.

 

So I hazard the guess that I am normally conscious when I dream, but because I am deprived of sensations I am familiar with, as well as the ability to act, the situations within which I dream exist in a parallel universe ruled by feelings of novelty, wonder, awe, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and self-doubt. All the dream situations are possible in that they are variations on stock situations I am familiar with, while at the same time they are novel in taking place in fantastic locales concocted by my unsituated brain trying to figure out where it is and what’s happening. The best it can do is guess on the basis of the few clues suggested by my autonomic nervous system (heart beat, sexual arousal, carbon dioxide level, hunger, etc.) which carries on 24/7 whether I am awake or asleep.

 

From my days working at Harvard Observatory, I retain the image (from a book in the library) of a robed man standing on a ladder, poking his head and shoulders through the celestial sphere (which rips in his case), to confront stars and planets directly as they wheel overhead. It’s a wonderful image because so full of practical details, while the overall concept is preposterous and very dreamlike. I’ve carried that image with me for 48 years. It may have a bearing on the hole in the sky I discovered this morning in my dreams because it came to mind while trying to describe that hole. Memory evidently plays a prominent role in dreams, mixing and matching details drawn from a host of situations to create a landscape wholly novel and fantastic. And, entertaining, once you get past the anxiety.

 

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Reflection 56: Beauty Day

January 28, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Saturday, it snows all day. Leaving about a foot on the ground. Carole and I plan to take a hike after Quaker Meeting next day. Where should we go? The south ridge of Norumbega Mountain is close-by, that seems a clear choice. We park by Lower Hadlock Pond. Across the white pond, the wooded slope of Norumbega looms like a smooth iceberg. We’re the first ones out. Snowshoes on, we cross the outlet and head up the Brown Mountain Trail (Norumbega used to be called Brown Mountain). As the ground rises, Carole’s snowshoes slip and slide; she decides to do without. I have crampons on mine, so I break trail. We’ve both hiked this ridge many times, but this time is different. The landscape is frosted with snow. Everything is smooth, soft, white. Except for a few fringes of forest green, and gray-brown stems of spruce. We’ve never seen it like this—stripped of all conventions as if pared down to basics. Like a line drawing. Everything is clear and clean. Winding between trees, we both agree it’s the most beautiful place we’ve ever been in. It’s more than the snow. These sloping woods. Low angle of light. Brisk air. Fresh scent. Stillness unto silence. “A beauty day,” I say, quoting my friend Gene Franck. Up and back, we are both in its spell, as if this were the first day of the world. The old and worn are new again. Past thoughts don’t apply. Wholly engaged in the present moment, we are new to ourselves.

 

Beauty and newness are often closely related. With novelty and freshness not far removed. Think babies, sweet sixteens, fresh laundry, hot dinners on the table. Character comes later, on the downhill slide. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show were freshness personified. America loved them. They were so youthful—just boys. As men, they proved more challenging. Innocence is an asset not to be wasted.

 

Is that it? All that can be said on the subject of beauty? Hardly. Trying to come to terms with beauty, I have taken two courses in aesthetics. Irwin Edman could say the same thing five different ways, and invariably ran through them all. Marx Wartofsky said he could declaim endlessly on the similarities and differences between a pencil and a stick of chalk. Beauty, I found, is not a matter of words. Words can be beautiful, particularly when pithy and pared to the core. But philosophizing about beauty tends to be un-beautiful.

 

Beauty is not something to be talked about. It is experiential, involving any or all of the senses. Beauty is an intuitive judgment in which strong feelings have a say. It is not something you can capture in words but something you feel. A kind of attraction that gets your attention. Captures you. Makes you want more. Awe and respect are often involved, or deepest respect—unto devotion.

 

But of course the beholder (hearer, scenter, toucher) in the case of beauty is judge and jury, not the beheld. Beauty is as much given as received. It is something you participate in, for yourself as well as others. What’s new is what is new to you, beguiling to you, seems fresh to you. Others may or may not concur with your taste.

 

Beauty is active, a way of seizing the world. It is always a discovery. Sought, but never fully anticipated. You have to be there, present, to feel the effect.

 

Some art tries to project or preserve beauty, as if it were an insect in amber. As if it were solely a matter of sensory proportions and relationships. But such features can fall on deaf ears or blind eyes. Beauty requires an audience open to its charms. And beyond that, an audience ready to reach toward those charms, welcoming and embracing the presence of something wonderful beyond itself. Beauty is performance and audience engaging, working together in mutual affirmation. Carole and I affirmed Norumbega that day as much as it affirmed us. Such a place is worthy of status as part of a national park, which it is—Acadia National Park.

 

Beauty, in other words, is situational. That is, it emerges within consciousness as one aspect of the ongoing relationship between self and world. It is neither a property of that world nor of the self, but is an aspect of the flow between them, the perceptual give and take forming the basis of the primal loop of experience. Experience arises from expectations cast onto the world through active behaviors, and from the feedback those expectant behaviors stir up and redirect from the world to the actor-become-perceiver. Consciousness is privy to the flow coursing through itself, which betokens a world without being of such a world.

 

Like beauty, consciousness itself is situational, emerging from the interaction between perceiver and the perceived. Either self or world may incite the interaction, but once begun, both are active participants. As long as the engagement lasts, beauty endures, rekindling itself. Here is long-term stimulation of cells in the hippocampus, enabling memory of the occasion to be laid down. That is beauty’s power, and why we have such a hard time defining it. It is that which enables memory, right up there with fear, anger, and jubilation. All of which set nerve cells firing in concert and brain waves humming, integrating consciousness so it is not at sixes and sevens as it often is in lives full of distractions.

 

Yes, that sounds right: beauty is memorable because it enables the process of laying down memories. That’s why I remember one figure standing next to me on a subway platform in Times Square 56 years ago (see Reflection 41: Christmas Tree). And hiking Norumbega with Carole one winter Sunday seven years ago. My brain is made to remember such events. Memory is not incidental to beauty, it is its essence. Unmemorable experiences fall away like chaff from the wheat. Beauty discovered deserves better. And sees to its own preservation. Just as other strong feelings do.

 

This is beautiful! Better remember it, it may have survival applications. The future is built on what we retain from the past. All else is unworthy of retention. Beauty is no frill. A life lived in search of beauty is an exemplary life.

 

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Reflection 24: Population

November 17, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

At the moment I start to write this blog, the world population of humans is figured to be 6,736,025,062 (POPClock, U.S. Bureau of Standards, Population Division, 3:57 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, November 10, 2008).

 

The world population reached some 300 million in Y0K (that’s a zero representing the millennial turn from B.C. to A.D.), reached its first billion about 1830 or earlier, its second billion in 1930, third in 1960, fourth in 1974, fifth in 1987, sixth in 1999, and is predicted to hit its seventh billion by 2017.

 

What makes these numbers so scary to me is, 1) the human population has more than tripled since I was born, 2) in my lifetime per-capita material consumption in the U.S. has shot up by a factor of six, 3) average life expectancy in the U.S. has stretched from 60 to 80 years over the same span, and 4) we have achieved all this at the expense of the Earth. I am mixing apples and oranges here, but only to make the point that during my brief tenure on Earth there are vastly greater numbers of us living much longer and consuming far more than our human ancestors did from the origin of our species to the 1930s.

 

We know all this. We also know that this horde of hungry hominids (namely, us) is eating away the habitats that give it a homeland on planet Earth. We are depleting the very species and ecosystems we depend on for life support. The forests, wetlands, grasslands, waterways, estuaries, oceans. We are changing the climate, the acidity of the seas, storm frequency and intensity—there are few aspects of our planet we haven’t impacted and destabilized to our peril.

 

Yet we do little about it. Red lights are flashing, sirens wailing, klaxons honking, flares igniting, bulletins alerting, headlines glaring, seas rising, bluffs eroding—and it’s all business as usual with us hominid types and our lifestyles that are fast turning into deathstyles.

 

Consciousness is given us so we can make appropriate responses to unprecedented life situations. So why aren’t we doing anything? Is it because we aren’t really conscious of what’s happening? By way of a contrasting example, I offer the time in Nespelum, Washington, when I went into the bushes to urinate, met a rattlesnake crossing the path in front of me, turned, walked away, and I no longer had to go. I was fully conscious and as a result clamped my bladder tight for over an hour. That’s consciousness leading to appropriate action.

 

But now we act like we’re in a deep sleep or coma: Let them take care of it, whoever they are. I didn’t do it. Besides, I can’t fix it. So individually and collectively we do nothing. Or worse than nothing, we keep multiplying, consuming, growing older and older, depleting the Earth. Every day we wake up and the problem is worse. In the past twelve years, more than a billion more people have been born than died. Consumers have rampaged through markets and malls, going deeply into debt, having their way with the Earth. And still we do nothing.

 

What’s wrong with our consciousness? With our exploring our options? With our prioritizing? With our acting and following-through? With our using our know-how and experience to get us out of this fix?

 

Like, we don’t have to live our full span of years, splurging the bulk of our life-long medical expenditures on a terminal spree during our last six months of life. Living for a shorter time has the same effect as cutting the population. We consume less, and yet enjoy ourselves more because we are in better health. Check that: no heroic efforts to gain a few extra months of “life” hooked up to expensive machines. No, not even if the medical establishment entices us (after all, they make a killing on forlorn hopes and end-of-life theatrics). Not even if our loved ones don’t want to let go.

 

A few years ago, my beloved cousin fell and injured her hand. Which got infected. Sending a clot to her heart, then on to her kidneys. Her lungs were already kaput from a fifty-year career of smoking to keep herself thin. Now it was quadruple bypass surgery, dialysis to detoxify herself, lying in bed for a year because standing and walking were too much effort. She and her daughters believed they could will her kidneys to heal themselves. But it didn’t pan out. After a year with no lifestyle at all she died, leaving a portfolio of unpaid hospital bills as her legacy. Is that how we want our loved ones to go, with a stifled (and costly) whimper, not a bang?

 

Conservation is the key to squandering fewer of Earth’s natural “resources.” I mean using fewer resources, not developing alternative technologies to sustain us at the same level of consumption. We can contribute to the resolution of our predicament by restraining our appetites, reusing what we do take, recycling, sharing, and weaning ourselves from dependence on petroleum-guzzling machinery by slowing down and relying more on our own labor. Think what that would do for our epidemic of obesity.

 

But then there’s the trail of toxic pollution we dribble behind us as we consume our merry way through life. Water pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, pet waste, farm waste, industrial waste, military waste. We keep facing ahead so we can’t see the puddles swamping our footprints. The wasted soils and aquifers. Or the dead zones downstream.

 

Nothing new here. We know all this. But “knowing” a fact in the abstract is not the same as experiencing it in full frontal awareness. There’s a great pit opening at our feet, and we pretend it’s not there. I don’t see anything. Me neither. Let’s keep our eyes closed and run as fast as we can.

 

When you look straight at something and don’t see it, it’s called denial. Or suppression. Or blindness. When you look straight at something, see it, and don’t act appropriately, it’s called ignorance. Or stupidity. Either way, it bodes ill for survival. We have seen the damage a C-minus president can do once in high office by elevating party loyalty and secrecy above wisdom and justice. We put him there, and kept him there, so we got the president we deserved. He’s slipping out the door now, but we’re still here, doing our thing. Hoping Obama’s the man to make the bad dream go away. Will we do our part when he asks us to? Remains to be seen.

 

Consciousness, where art thou when we need you? As always, there’s nobody here but us chickens. Only our collective consciousness can heal Earth, its peoples, and our nation—along with our personal judgment, motivation, and ultimately our actions.

 

So what do we do now? As I see it, we’ve been on cruise control for too long. It’s become a habit with us. But we’ve come to a village and have to slow down—rethink our life situation. The trick to effective use of consciousness is to see it as a kind of time machine. The meanings we put on events all come from concepts and experiences laid down in the past. The sensory phenomena of today are the face of the present. What we’ve been doing is mapping past meanings onto present images, treating the now as an extension of the way things used to be. But that isn’t good enough because our life situation has changed. There are too many of us now, living too high on the hog, outlasting our dreams, abusing the Earth.

 

The question is, where do we find guidance to take us into the future? That’s where imagination comes in, providing a vision of the way things might turn out if we did things differently from before. Like slowing down when we drive through a village because of the risk of hitting a child chasing a ball into the street. If we don’t see the child behind the car, we have to imagine her there and drive accordingly. That vigilance is part of consciousness, too.

 

Let me give an example. I once snowshoed up Cadillac Mountain Road in Acadia the day after a big snowstorm. It was Saturday, and all the snowmobilers were out. That road is one blind curve after another. What I noticed was the difference between how solo riders took those curves compared to riders with their ladies sitting behind them. The young Turks all commandeered the center of the road and sped around the turns with no thought that unseen riders might be coming the other way. Those with ladies slowed, kept to the right, and watched for coming traffic they couldn’t yet see.

 

When judgment selects which of our options for action to support, it considers the likely consequences of each option and goes for the one with the highest probability of getting us where we want to go. That is, all things considered, consciousness recommends actions for their future effects, not their adherence to outmoded traditions, habits, or sentiments. When old ways no longer prove effective, consciousness takes a fresh look at novel behaviors.

 

Novelty is our key to appropriate action that will bring in the world of the future. In Maine, everybody stops at yard sales to scan the tables for good stuff, cheap. Not necessarily brand-new stuff, but stuff new to us. Shopping sprees are satisfying because they renew the human spirit with colorful, bright, shiny stuff. Think of the possibilities opening out of a box of new Legos in red, white, and blue. Dinosaurs. Skyscrapers. Robots. With enough of these building blocks, you can make anything you want.

 

So applying consciousness as a time machine for building a new future, we have to reconsider the meaning of our growing population, our level of consumption, our life expectancy, and our relation to the Earth. Old ways have gotten us where we find ourselves today. We have to learn to look around the curve ahead to see what may be coming at us. No more backing lost causes or forlorn hopes (think bundled mortgages). We have to fit ourselves more appropriately to the now situation rather than blindly keep on as we’ve gone before. I’m talking about finding novel ways of doing and living. About being ourselves differently—and loving it because it accords with our expanded awareness.

 

Throughout the industrial era, buying stuff has kept the global economy going year after year. Now we have to see such “stuff” as gifts from an Earth that can give only so much on a sustainable basis. Taking more than Earth can afford leads to collapse of natural systems which govern themselves. We see that now. Outdoing ourselves year after year in turning wealth into goods, we’ve managed to undo the source that keeps us alive. There are simply too many of us, living too long, consuming too much stuff, giving too little attention to where our wealth comes from.

 

Our goal now is to provide a truly sustainable situation for every person on Earth, along with each of Earth’s other plant and animal inhabitants. Our planet (we belong to it, not it to us) has a limited capacity to tolerate and support us. Collectively spending beyond our means has bankrupted the planet, our ultimate repository of wealth. The debt we owe is not to banks but Earth itself.

 

How many of us can live sustainably on Earth, at what level of consumption, for how many years, with what attitude toward our planetary host and benefactor? We must wrap our consciousness around these questions and come up with answers in short order. That is the challenge to which we were born, and cannot escape.

 

After writing for a spell, going to the post office and the store, after cooking dinner, after eating, after reading and listening to the news, as I finish this blog at 9:36 p.m., the world population of humans is figured to be 6,736,076,770.

 

That’s 51,708 more mouths for Earth to feed than when I sat down to write five hours and thirty-nine minutes ago—over 152 added every minute. T i m e   i s  w a s t i n g   a w a y. If we forgot to set the alarm, let this be it. If we are the problem, let us be the solution as well. Sleepers AWAKE!

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