So, to continue my journey in this brand-new year along the loops of engagement cycling through my mind: after perception and judgment by my situated self comes the realm of planning and action, leading to my playing my role as wayfarer making my way through the serial adventures of my life.

Once all options have been compared and judgments cast, the issue then is to make and effect a plan of action. Goals are set, decisions made how to proceed, projects designed and implemented, teams and relationships formed, tools selected, skills developed and practiced—all leading to decisive moments when I act in keeping with the judgment cast so many milliseconds, hours, days, or years ago.

By the black box image, where perception treats the energy input to my mind from my surroundings, my deeds and actions direct my life’s energy output into those same surroundings as shaped in spacetime by my mind.

The transformation of that flow of sensory energy by my experience and intelligence is situated in a set of active dimensions assembled on that particular occasion in my mind. Those dimensions might include a varied mix of memories, values, emotions, impressions, meanings, motivations, understandings, imaginings, thoughts, beliefs, and so on, all as aroused on that psychic occasion within the confines of my personal black box.

As reshaped by my situated intelligence, that transformed flow of energy is directed across the gap or discrepancy between incoming perception as realized and outgoing action as intended to meet and respond to that flow in an appropriate manner.

As the link between perception and action, my conscious mind is the seat of that discrepancy, and of the judgment intended to adjust or correct it.

Our actions and doings are the most familiar stage of our loops of engagement because they are the culmination of our native intelligence doing its thing to find meaning in, and give direction to, the stream of consciousness that makes up what we can know of the parade of events in our surroundings.

Those actions and doings are the means of our wayfaring. Whether for pay or not, they are how we make our living, such as it is, as an expression of our response to the flow of energy passing through our minds.

Whether we receive pay or not tells whether we are acting primarily for ourselves or for our employers, furthering our own journeys or helping them along on theirs—or doing both at the same time. The art of living is to find a balance between the two that is mutually agreeable to both.

Other people have no direct way of reading our minds and intentions. They have only our deeds to go by in engaging us from a distance and forming a response. To an experienced observer, however, our mental processes may be partially told by what we do.

What we “do” includes speech acts, facial expressions, gestures, bodily postures, dress, grooming, poise, vocal rhythm, presence, style, and all the other signs we give off when we act. Which are the same signs we interpret when forming impressions of those we engage.

Our actions flow in several channels at once, many being largely unconscious, yet all originate in our mental processes nonetheless. In that sense, all human activity is to some degree expressive of the inner states within our personal black boxes, whether we send such messages deliberately or not.

 

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

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

 

Smooth Green Snake 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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