(Copyright © 2010)

When I drive my car, I watch out for bicyclists and pedestrians.

When I bike, I fear I am invisible to drivers and walkers alike.

When I walk, both cars and bikes are spawn of the devil.

I am one person with, in these examples, three different outlooks, depending on my mode of travel. I feel like the same person, only different somehow. My perspective changes, my expectancy changes, my sense of danger changes. Who I curse under my breath and yell at out loud changes. It’s as if I had three different personalities that shift in and out according to how I get around. In a very real sense, I seem to sort other travelers into social bins according to which bin I place myself in at the time.

Perspectives govern how we categorize our worlds of experience, depending on how we perceive our current situation in the world. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein was a friend of the U.S. When, confident of our friendship, he subsequently invaded and occupied Kuwait, he became our enemy, so in the 1991 Gulf War we drove him back into his cage. Then in 2003, bent on regime change, we invaded Iraq, captured Saddam, tried him, and put him to death. All according to how we saw and categorized him at the time. He was still the same man; we kept revising how we looked at and categorized him.

Closer to home, at the recent Rockweed Research Priorities Symposium (see Reflection 184: Consciousness Speaks), I handed around a table outlining nine different perspectives on the harvesting of rockweed. Here is a list of assumptions and goals I associated with the several perspectives:

Perspective

Assumptions

Goals

Economic Everyone has a right to make a living. Sustainable harvests, income, and sales are a must.
Managerial

Regulation and enforcement are necessary to main-tain the resource.

The aim is sustainable productivity, habitats, and harvests over the long term.
Political Strike a balance between jobs & the environment. My vote is for equal opportunity, fairness, sustainability.
Historical Today is rooted in yesterday; tomorrow will be rooted in today. We know more than we did, but not enough to guarantee we do no harm.
Legal Harvesting in the intertidal zone is based on Colonial Ordinances of 1641-1643 in Mass. Bay. Private property, as well as public interest, safety, rights, & wellbeing, are to be preserved.
Cultural Different groups see and do things from different perspec-tives, and speak different languages. Common concerns help different groups work together toward shared goals. A sense of humor also helps.
Scientific Statistical analyses based on adequate data speak louder than words. Sustainable harvest practices are best based on sound science.
Ethical No special interest is to have unfair advantage. Stewardship by all parties is key to a workable mgt. plan.
Aesthetic If it looks good, it is good. Natural beauty is to be preserved at all costs.
All of the Above Be clear, listen well. Stewardship promotes sustainable habitats & harvests alike.

The common denominator allowing all perspectives to work together combines sustainability of habitats and food production with sustainable rockweed harvests in a given location. That is, achieving a fair balance between harvest goals and ecological understanding offers hope that all perspectives can contribute to and agree on a workable and enforceable resource management plan. The aim then becomes to set a level of harvest that would sustain both rockweed production and habitats through a regime of stewardship by all parties.

Which does not solve the problem inherent in each perspective using a variety of terms to characterize rockweed from its particular point of view. “Biomass,” “standing crop,” “marine resource,” “primary producer,” and “public-trust resource” have different meanings to different people in different contexts. A common terminology does not yet exist to enable all perspectives to share a universal view of reality. Common understanding is based on common experiences interpreted in similar ways. Adherents to the separate perspectives seldom share anything close to a common interpretation of the facts. The terms they employ may sound familiar, but the underlying attitudes and experiences are bound to differ in minds trained along different lines of experience.

So perspectives entail personal attitudes, assumptions, interpretations, training, experience, language, and judgments—some conscious, others unconscious. All shaped by, and relevant to, a particular issue or situation as colored by the goals and interests of the parties involved. In the driving-biking-walking example I started with, my common interests include staying safe while inflicting no harm on others. Which translate as different behaviors depending on the horsepower under my control, relative speeds of those involved, spatial relationships, margins of error and safety, reaction times, and level of vigilance—as well as weather and time of day. All subservient to the errand I am intent on accomplishing in good order.

Perspectives, then, are not simple placements in the scheme of things such as the term “viewpoint” might suggest, but are highly complex resolutions of a great many mental factors bearing on a given situation as personally understood or interpreted at the time. Such understanding or interpretation is the basis for how the evolving scene is categorized respectively by the different parties involved. There’s my take, your take, his take, and her take—all on what appears to be the same set of circumstances—but as seen differently by every one of us.

Which dramatizes the fact that we all live in different worlds all the time, depending on how we invest ourselves according to our personal experience, motivation, and level of discernment. Put that way, it is a wonder how any two people might agree on anything. A sense of humor surely helps. Which requires we look down on ourselves dispassionately from above as we struggle to make sense of a particular situation—seeing how everyone is playing the one game by different rules. Getting a detached sense of perspective on ourselves, we can appreciate the humor in our coming at a common issue from different directions. Laughter eases the tension, helping us see ourselves in the heat of engagement, allowing us to ease off and compare notes about why we characterize what’s happening as we do. Getting a fresh perspective on our perspectives, we see where the problem lies, allowing us to back off and make a new start.

Night-before-last I woke at 4:00 in the morning, got up, and wrote down the following:

Perspectives are projections or characterizations reflecting an attitude of expectancy that events in the world will answer to our personal needs and desires. We seem to be engaging situations in that world in the here and now, but are more likely coming from the there and then of our formative years when those attitudes of expectancy were laid down as electro-chemical connections in our brains.

Where we’re coming from, then, is not necessarily where we are now, but where we were in a largely-forgotten former life having nothing to do with our current situation—but everything to do with how we view and engage it.

Despite our credentials, resumes, and experience, we are often not who we seem in making ourselves happen on the world stage. We are that naive and confused kid blindly making his way in light of overwhelming ignorance combined with an understanding based on memorable events during her formative years. In truth, we are winging it more often than not on what we loosely call intuition.

Having written those words, I am transported to the summer day Everett Baldwin and I were tooling around Hamilton on our bikes—which in those days had only one speed—and found ourselves peddling up hill and down to Syracuse some 20 or 25 miles away. I remember being disappointed in Syracuse, expecting more the Emerald City. We stopped at a dingy lunch counter under some railroad tracks, where I asked for a glass of water because I was thirsty. Seeing a clock, I suddenly realized how late it was, and how far we had to go. We got on our bikes and rode home, late for supper again.

That is how perspectives are formed, by randomly defining our home territories, as Thoreau spent a lifetime exploring Concord within ten-mile walking distance of his doorway. That way we find out who we are in the world, and set our expectations accordingly. Literally, by mapping our homeland onto our brains to serve as a reference ever after. When, later, we categorize situations, it is that reference we fall back on—and those early hikes and bicycle trips that made us then who we still are at heart. When we assimilate new experience, those early maps provide the schemas that we assimilate to. And if we experience dissonance in trying to do that, we can either reject the new experience as invalid, or stretch our maps to fit an expanded territory, creating an atlas with separate pages based on different locales. Education, too, and job training get their own pages in that atlas, as do the hard knocks of living a life.

Where we’re coming from is none other than the life we have led up till now. The message is clear: since we’ve survived this far, more of the same is all we need to get ahead of where we are. That is the practical wisdom of perspectives. If more of the same doesn’t work, then retreat, expand your horizons, or try something new. It’s that simple and, upon realizing all that’s involved, that difficult. Our looping engagements with world situations—from biological values laid upon maps in our brains to help us decide how to plan and act on a particular occasion, informed by feedback from what actually happens—are primarily governed by the perspectives we have acquired over years of planning and doing. We each have a repertoire of perspectives appropriate to different sorts of situations, and judgment enabling us to choose which to try first, and which to fall back on when that fails to get us where we want to go.

Overall, conceptual (abstract) and episodic (concrete) memories serve as our personal guides to the future by recommending what to do now in sizing up a situation as an opportunity for getting ahead. The now is a pattern made meaningful by mapping relevant aspects of memory onto it in the most economical way. If that doesn’t work, then we have to do our homework in coming up with a more effortful plan to find meaning in preparing ourselves for effective action. All influenced by cultural norms of what people are likely to do in such situations. And what our mother says we should do, as well as word from our spouses, children, colleagues, and daily horoscope. In general, we achieve clarity by applying tried-and-true perspectives to familiar situations, leading to easy categorizations depicting the nature of reality as we can safely assume it is. Or not, as the case may be.

I often try to diagram these various aspects of perspectivity in relation one to another, and quickly get in over my head because there isn’t room enough on the page to fit all the relevant details. The result is pretty much of a clutter. But that does at least provide some sense of how complex perspectives are—and how miraculous it is that—for good or ill—they inform everything we do. Here is what I’ve come up with for this post.

Where I'm Coming From

We all wear many hats, and change them as often as our situation changes and a new outlook is called for. Everybody in Boston wears a Red Sox cap. Moving to San Diego, they’d have to buy a new hat—that is, learn to love a new team by learning its history and attending a lot of games. Such a radical change in perspective may not be humanly possible. It takes a huge effort even to try to adjust to a new setting with strange cultural norms. No wonder we get stuck in our ways. But just to keep up with changing events, we have to keep trying to avoid falling behind the times. Which catches us in a time lag, like just every pundit who’s trying to go back to the old days when he knew who he was and what was happening.

A lot of people these days are out of sorts because their perspectives are obsolete and they won’t admit it. They’d rather go back than move ahead. But in truth the secret of success in life is not to be found in the Qur’an, the sayings of Ronald Reagan or Confucius. Rather, it is in staying abreast with the times as they are, not as we would have them be. Nothing dates faster than a childhood take on events. Putting our trust in how things used to be may have worked once when the pace of change was slow, but in the twenty-first century, we have no alternative but to try to keep up. If we are not perpetual learners, our destiny is to become obsolete. No one knows when the next earthquake will change everything we now take for granted.

Red Sox Perspective

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(Copyright © 2009)

Because each person on Earth is inherently unique, the landscapes we live in depend on where we are situated in our heads. Self-centered perspectivity is the tragic flaw we all share in common. The human predicament is to be one-of-a-kind—yet to act as if we each set the norm. Unrelentingly, we mistake our personal views for the way things are, confounding our limited personal grasp of affairs with universal truth. We are so full of ourselves, we often foist our personal brand of consciousness onto those around us, who, if we are tough enough with them, bow to our shows of conviction as signs of wisdom and power. To wit: patriarchies, chains of command, pecking orders, management and labor. Day after day, we bull our way through one situation after another, or submit and get out of the way.

Our uniqueness is not a matter of degree; it is absolute. Each of us may boast some 23 thousand genes, but they are wholly inadequate when it comes to specifying the one million billion (1 followed by 15 zeroes) synaptic connections between brain cells in our cerebral cortices. During development in the womb and through strong experience, we forge those connections on our own—or don’t if we fail to exercise them actively during infancy, childhood, and thereafter. As Gerald Edelman summarizes the underpinnings of consciousness (“Building a Picture of the Brain,” in Edelman and Changeux, The Brain, Transaction Publishers, 2001):

At the finest scale, no two brains are identical, not even those of identical twins. Furthermore, at any two moments, connections in the same brain are not likely to remain exactly the same. Some cells will have retracted their processes, others will have extended new ones, and certain other cells will have died. . . . There are no absolutely specific point-to-point connections in the brain. The microscopic variability of the brain at the finest ramifications of its neurons is enormous, making each brain unique. (Pages 38-39.)

In managing personal consciousness, each of us is on her own. Our brains are unique, our minds are unique, the worlds we create for ourselves are unique. Quite literally, reality is beyond our reach because we live in our bodies by interpreting signals from some outer world of which we can only dimly and partly be aware. Conjure that world as we may, the results bear our personal signatures for, as projections outward from our perspectives, they are largely our own doing instead of a welcoming of the world as it is. We each place ourselves at the center of our worlds, creating a multiverse of which we are but one facet among seven billion.

Yet hour by hour we rise on our soap boxes and proclaim or act out the truth as we see it—as if it were the only truth there is or could possibly be. If that isn’t a travesty, then it is a tragedy which we enact every every day without questioning whether or not we know what we do, or appreciate the impact we have on those around us or on Earth itself, the planet that has supported us up till now no matter how badly we have treated it.

Which raises an obvious question: Who am I to defy the very point I am trying to make by daring to break out of the fortress of my subjective outlook in this blog? Surely, I am no less tragic a figure than any other. All I can say is: I write for myself and you read for yourself. Perhaps our worlds overlap to some degree. In which case I could claim to be a columnist like Alexander Cockburn, say, who writes in The Nation (October 5, 2009):

Was there ever a society so saturated with lunacy as ours? One expects modulated nuttiness from the better element, particularly those inhabiting the corporate and legislative spheres. But these days insanity is pervasive, spreading through all classes and walks of life.

Or for another example, like Daniel Lyons in Newsweek (September 28, 2009):

[M]ost of what streams across Twitter is junk. One recent study concluded that 40 percent of the messages are “pointless babble.”. . . Then again look at TV: fat people dancing, talentless people singing, Glenn Beck slinging lunatic conspiracy theories. Stupid stuff sells. The genius of Twitter is that it manages to be even stupider than TV. It’s so stupid that it’s brilliant. No person with an IQ above 100 could possibly care what Ashton Kutcher or Ashlee Simpson has to say about anything. But Kutcher has 3.5 million Twitter followers, and Simpson has 1.5 million.

Insanity and stupidity are pandemic. They’re finally getting across as our preferred way of life. We are conjurors all, flaunting vanities from our secret worlds. Whatever became of modesty, humility, judgment, and respect? We’re making a killing by foisting subjective views on a public starved for outrage and comic relief. Think of those trillions of synapses going to waste, now disconnected and lost for good. And we can’t stop ourselves from putting witlessness on display any more than Republicans can stop trying to kick Obama’s chair out from under him so they can smirk when he falls.

The take-home message? If you’re not good at building a better world through discipline and hard work, trash the one you’ve got just for laughs. That’s what we’re doing with our unique set of gifts instead of contributing to the greater good. The tragedy is that in trashing the world, we’re trashing ourselves. Playing our foibles before the crowd, we appeal to the least of our possibilities instead of showing our stuff in meeting the defining challenges of our times. It is we who choose how to make ourselves happen during our brief stay on this Earth. If life turns out a tragedy, so be it: the name on the script is our own.

NASA-Earth-2