So, how does it happen, this mental life of ours?

From our point of view, we are born to engage as best we can  the local precinct of whatever universe we find ourselves in. Basically, elaborate neural networks in our brains offer hospitality to a wide variety of signals sparked by whatever part of that universe is within reach of our senses. In different proportions, those signals shape the dimensions of our situated intelligence every instant of our lives, serving as our subjective (and distorted) version of the world. Our job is to interpret as best we can that fleeting mix of signals, and to respond more-or-less appropriately. Voilà, our streaming mental life.

Let us stop willing the mind not to exist because it defies the ideology in which we have been schooled.  And, too, stop assuming that the world we individually entertain is the one and only real world. Let’s get with evolution’s program for our species of primate. The program that plants the presumed order of the universe so firmly in our minds, when all we have to go on is the blur our senses present to us. We are the most willful species imaginable. It is time to admit it so we can transcend our past errors and fulfill the promise we are born to.

Rip off the blinders of our self-serving orthodoxies and join the company of universal beings we might become if we stop claiming to be the one people chosen (by ourselves) above all others. That claim is proof of the distortions that come with our subjective versions of the world.

What I am asking is that we accept the fact that we know only the flickering impressions on the inner walls of the dark caves we inhabit throughout life. That we live in subjective confinement within our minds. That our powers are puny in comparison to the majesty of the stars from which the atoms in our bodies have been created and donated to the universe.

If we can update our thinking and cherished beliefs, then we might at last transcend the narrow thread of history we have come to believe in as if it were true, go beyond our previous attainments, and so become beings worthy of the planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe that have hosted us all along—and of which we are integral parts.

Nothing matters more than the wellbeing of the planet we live on in the vast chill of space. We know that now. It is past time to act on that certainty. Burning fossil fuels is a luxurious habit, like smoking cigarettes, an evil (in the sense of unhealthy) habit. Crowding the planet with our ways of doing things is not our destiny if we are to survive.

If we don’t naturalize ourselves and become first-and-foremost citizens of the Earth, then our glorious achievements cumulatively amount to our own demise.

How ironic is that? All because we claim to take as real the world as we find it, while in the meantime fabricating a world of our own making to suit ourselves from inside the black boxes we truly inhabit.

It is past time to bring our actions into compliance with the living order of nature, not our self-serving fantasies as cast upon the waters of our beliefs.

 

 

 

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(Copyright © 2010)

What do I mean when I say we live in our heads, or on our own private planets?

I mean, for instance: Time is a convenient fiction, a designated standard of change against which other changes can be compared or measured. Time is a construct of the human mind. Think of your watch as a miniature model of the sun’s apparent motion around the Earth each day. When we ask what time it is, we mean in reference to that model of the sun’s fictional motion through space. Time is a game we play in our heads, extending it imaginatively backward to days before Earth and its sun were formed, all the way to the alleged big bang, and forward imaginatively to days after the sun itself or any sort of timekeeper will exists.

We loosely think of the ageing process as a product of time, as if time were an agent that causes people to grow old. But in fact age is nothing other than the collective physical and mental changes that, instead of coming from time, produce the illusion of time itself as a supposed medium making change possible. If we could manage not changing from what we are right now, we would be eternal; that is, we’d have no need for time.

Space, too is such a construct of imagination. Objects do not exist in space, they exist in relationship one to another in the human mind as viewed from a particular perspective. Space is not the medium of such relationships but a designated contextual framework overlaid upon them for the purpose of calibrating and measuring them in ways meaningful to human awareness. We find meaning in the concepts of both time and space, even though in and of themselves they are figments of the mind. Changes exist; relationships exist; and both require the presence of observers such as ourselves. Without us, time and space would not exist. Even with us being present, we demonstrably exist (we can pinch ourselves to find out), but they exist only as ideas or concepts in our thoughts, speech, and writing.

Time and space are human categorizations—ways of reaching out to the world in order to find it meaningful in terms we provide and understand. They are inventions, not discoveries, artifacts of culture, not nature. They are useful mental tools, right up there with toothbrushes and toilet paper to help us shape the world to our liking.

Laws and human rights, too, are similar categorizations, ideas projected outward as if they were properties of the world itself. If human rights were features of the world, there would also be ant rights, wolf rights, bacteria rights, virus rights, tree rights, and so on. No, it is we who maintain that human rights exist as a convenient fiction, and devote a considerable amount of time and energy to reifying, objectifying, or substantiating that idea. The propertied classes have given us the idea of private property, and crafted a maze of legal opinions to “prove” it is not merely an illusion. Imagine a robin claiming the territory around its nest as its private property to do with as it pleases, referring to words written on paper in the form of a deed to support its claim. The words make it so one creature on Earth has exclusive “ownership rights” to its portion of the planet, and can justly do battle with any rival creature that thinks otherwise. 

The scale at which we project human ideas into the world is an indicator of the scale at which we imagine those ideas in our minds. We generally don’t think overly large or small, but just right—at the scale of typical human engagements such as gestures (like waving at an approaching friend, or throwing a Frisbee or a ball), activities (flying a kite, playing football, mining a hilltop for coal), everyday structures (houses, city blocks, skyscrapers, airfields), or grand undertakings (famous battles, voyages of exploration, pandemics, missions to the moon). The resolution at which we pick out the relevant details of our lives is scaled to the dimensions of the human body and how we use it. We find it difficult to think at bedbug scale, elephant or giraffe scale, ends of the Earth scale, voyages to Mars scale, or galaxy scale. That is, the world in our heads is largely scaled to norms set by everyday personal experience. Think of Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover from the mid-1970s depicting the view west from 9th Street in Manhattan to “Hudson River,” “Jersey,” and, much diminished, the nameless far beyond.

Our personal planets are populated by myriad creatures to which we give names, forms, characteristics, and entire resumes, even though we know they aren’t really real—just pretend real—as if there were degrees of reality. But we shift from one degree to another as easily as any child captivated by Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch. Films, plays, and literature depend on our not making distinctions between degrees of engagement or believability. Every advertisement presents a hokey view of reality, as does every cartoon, public relations campaign, vote in Congress, or wedding ceremony. Without being overly fussy, we choose to believe what fits into our general scheme of things at the time. Consciousness is peopled by Bugs Bunny, The Hulk, Paul Bunyan, Moses, Captain Nemo, Raskolnikoff, Aida, the Cowardly Lion, and Sugarplum Fairy. Yes, we tell our children, there is a Santa Clause, each supernatural (better, subnatural) being having a secure place near our hearts as well as in the depths of our minds.

We rush to demonize or lionize others in defending how we choose to characterize them, pointing our fingers with glee at those who fall short of or exceed our routine expectations for human behavior within what we consider a normal range. It doesn’t take more than one true confession to shift a saint to the opposite extreme of our personal Pantheon: witness Tiger Woods, Elliott Spitzer, Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Bernie Madoff, and Donald Rumsfeld. Men seem to have a hard time measuring up to their pretensions of virtue. In each of their minds they remain that innocent little kid who is not capable of doing wrong. From governor or attorney general to lowly two-timer in one day! Dontcha just love it! Everybody does. Where, then, does reality lie? Which persona is real? How are we to categorize the male animal?

Even members of the Supreme Court, who you’d hope would know where they reside, do not live in the real world. On one hand Justice John Paul Stevens takes his lived experience into account in interpreting the Constitution, as the framers must have taken their own experience in their day. On the other hand, Justice Antonin Scalia claims to have direct access to the intent of the framers by consulting the words they committed to paper in composing the original document, even though Earth has orbited the sun 223 times since those heady days, slaves are no longer regarded as property, women can vote, and usage of the English language has strayed far beyond the conventional bounds that prevailed in the seafaring-agrarian days of the thirteen colonies.

There is something in the human mind that loves to be fooled and to fool others. When I visit my son Michael’s grave on his birthday in February each year, I find bright blues and reds of artificial flowers with plastic greens poking from waterless jars buried in snow before other graves. Such displays always stop me in my tracks to consider the intent of placing such bouquets. Setting out real flowers at Memorial Day I can understand, but false ones out of season gives me pause. I see a show of remembrance but not remembrance itself, as if good intentions sufficed, or giving impressions was the issue. Fortunately, the dead are blind and cannot watch the little plays staged on their behalf. I am being judgmental here, a quality of mind that keeps me from adorning my son’s grave with plastic flowers from China. Usually, his grave marker is buried under snow, but I know exactly where it is in relation to the great oak overhead, and where his ashes are placed. I visit the grave to converse with the son who still lives in me, and is with me wherever I go. Where is reality, cremated and buried beneath a stone, or in my head?

We love to be fooled by slight of hand because it creates a slight of mind that is thrilling in being inexplicable. Whatever our age, magic shows make us wonder about the nature of things. How is it possible to saw a lady in half without doing violence to her body? She doesn’t seem to mind, and even wiggles her toes during the cut. Suspension of skepticism and disbelief makes children of us all. How do cars move? How do planes fly? How do pumpkins get so big? How will St. Peter react to what he reads under our name in the great ledger when we show up at the gate? Baudelaire’s characterization of genius as childhood recalled at will applies to the part of our conscious minds that defies the ageing process by staunchly staying the same throughout our lives. Or at least seems to stay the same, even if periodically updated. The child within may well be a fictional persona, but the old feeling of innocent wonder and curiosity is available to us at all times. And that feeling recalled in the face of mysterious events gives us pleasure, so once we find our way back to it, we go there as often as we can. Perhaps it is on that level that we are so taken with artificial flowers today. And read Marvel Comics as kids.

Sporting competitions bring out a similar childhood sense of right and wrong, good guys and bad. In the bleachers, we become our childhood selves once again, living solely for the moment, being fully engaged, waving our arms, jumping up, yelling with mindless abandon. When we are in that place, nothing else matters but the game being played as we see it from our childhood perspective. It is no wonder that the sports section is a fixture of the local newspaper. It invites us to release our inner child, to engage now as we did in our days of non-stop excitement and wonder. The substrate of the so-called real world is Baudelaire’s sense of genius being rooted in childhood, not to be simply recalled but relived in the moment. Meaning is there when that happens, old days mapping onto new, rejuvenating us by early concepts reaching out to sensory patterns in the now, recognizing them, making them seem familiar, and so true.

Lying in bed last night, I realized that in language, art, and music alike, patterns of relationship are everything. The brain is a seeker of relationships between patterns, and when it finds such relationships through any combination of the senses—whether simultaneous or sequential, visual or auditory, linguistic or experiential—the mind bestows meaning on those patterns in the sense of understanding what is taking place in terms it has encountered before. To understand is to wrap the now in the then, the here in the there, the new in the old, the concrete in the abstract and conceptual. All made possible by signals in the brain, wherever located, that share a recognizable rhythm. Where such neural rhythms can be appreciated in relation one to another, that is where we live because we are made to make just such connections. Learning to read is an exercise in pattern recognition and relationship. Ditto for listening to music and looking at art. Recognizing a face as familiar underwrites that face with a history, which makes it meaningful in a personal way. Discovering a familiar feel to a situation conveys meaning from memory onto that situation, even though we have never been in precisely that one before. With the result we know who we are in that place, and assume the persona of our old selves again.

Where and what is reality? It is not waiting for us to discover behind closed doors, but comes with us when we walk into a situation buzzing with patterns of stimulation we can put a familiar feel to and a name. Reality is within us as a sense of the trusted and familiar, qualities with which we reach into the unknown in hopes we will find something meaningful because recognizable. If we find no such patterns, we are not in our element, and so feel uncomfortable or out of our depth.

Cultures are known by the distinctive patterns of their ways of dressing, eating, speaking, praying, greeting, and going about the business of everyday life. They are flagrant in making themselves know to all comers. Dark pinstripe suits generally do not consort with bright colored dashikis. There is no doubt whether our familiar patterns of recognition are in keeping with those here on display or not. We know intuitively and immediately if we belong here or not—if this is our sort of place, where we know who we are because our inner and outer patterns of relationship match up without discord.

Reality is within us as a replica of patterns we acquired in childhood by being immersed in a world that danced to a certain rhythm from our earliest days. Our caregivers set the beat and the tone, joined by our siblings and relatives, neighbors and acquaintances. Those primal patterns are stamped into connections and disconnections between neurons in our brains established in our formative days, months, and years, giving familiar patterns an edge over unfamiliar ones, recognizable sensory patterns an advantage over the novel or strange. Reaching into the world, we are ever sensitive to those same patterns that calibrated our young minds. As pattern recognizers go, it takes one to know one.

So, as I say, the real world is within, waiting to be released into an external world that would be a formless cacophony without our being there to put it in order. Reality is our doing. We are the ones responsible for recognizing its patterns on sight, smell, hearing, and touch. Which is why, to study the world, we must first study ourselves to discover in what sort of world we truly belong. On that basis, we can then make deliberate efforts to adapt to the world we find ourselves in—to accommodate to its rhythms, dances, and ways of being—so that we belong there as well as to the world we bring with us in our heads.

NASA Reality--Eagle flying where there is no air

 

(Copyright © 2010)

I’ve been posting this blog since early October 2008. My original plan was to update my thinking about consciousness, which I’d first explored when writing my dissertation in 1980-1982 at Boston University’s School of Education. In the interim, I had moved to Maine from the Boston area, and revitalized my relationship with the natural world. In the process, I learned a great deal about my natural self, and about natural consciousness as opposed to the more scholarly, culturally-approved variety taught in schools. It has taken me over twenty-five years to strip academic mannerisms and bad habits from my thinking. That done, feeling human again, I took up blogging to gain a fresh perspective on consciousness, not as it is supposed to be, but as it actually reveals itself in my mind.

When I began blogging, I knew very little about how to go about it. I haven’t learned much about blogging along the way because I haven’t really been blogging. I consider myself a terrible blogger because I’m long-winded and far from topical. I don’t pick up on events in Washington so much as in my head—whatever occurs to me. Which is the point of my blog—to serve as a kind of diary for my life reflections. One post leading to another (or not leading anywhere), I follow what comes to my mind—which reveals the irrational connections and associations my mind actually makes when I sit down to write. I blog about things few others see because that is the nature of my mind in particular, and the human mind in general. Each of us abides on her own private planet.

My initial aim in blogging was to update thoughts I’d had in writing my dissertation twenty-eight years ago, but I quickly found I wasn’t in that place any more. I was more interested in discovering what I didn’t know than rehashing what I already did. Nothing is more tiresome than going over the same old ground again and again, trying to find new ways to say the same old thing. Speaking of death watches, that’s a sure sign you’re watching over your own demise. If I’m not making new discoveries every day, what’s the point of my using up Earth’s precious resources just to stay alive so I can play solitaire?

I converted this blog into a voyage of discovery, and posted whatever I found exciting and challenging at the time I sat down to write. I didn’t resort to an outline because that would imply I knew where I was going. Instead, I wanted to get wherever my series of reflections would take me, then look around to find out where I was.

That’s an apt description of how I lead my life. I’ve just finished a 70-slide PowerPoint on the 90% eelgrass dieback in Taunton Bay in 2001. It took me eight years to put it together because I used it as a vehicle of discovery—my personal spaceship headed into the future toward planet Wherever. Well, that’s just where I found myself when I opened the hatch. After reflecting on the various aspects of the dieback, and the details fit a coherent pattern, I knew I was there. Here’s what I wrote about my methodology in the abstract of my presentation at the New England Estuarine Research Society’s upcoming meeting in St. Andrews, New Brunswick:

This is not a scientific study in the traditional sense so much as an experiential exploration relying heavily on human consciousness to match its characterizations and understanding to patterns it perceives in sensory phenomena. When the balance in awareness is judged to be appropriate to the problematic situation, the resulting conclusion about the cause of the dieback is more a product of aesthetic approval of cohesiveness than rigorous statistical analysis.

Some people might say I am talking nonsense, but that’s a good example of my private planet sending signals into space to see if there’s anybody out there. Which is a pretty fair description of how we go about trying to reach people who might understand us so we feel we’re not just talking to ourselves. Otherwise, what’s the point of having tongues, teeth, and lips, and making all this noise?

Or of typing away at computers and posting blogs? What is it, exactly, the Internet allows us to do that we couldn’t do in the old days B.C.—before computers? These days we certainly do more of it faster—whatever it is. It’s whatever all those folks walking and driving along are doing with their whole minds devoted to not being where their bodies are because they’re so busy twittering or gabbing on cell phones. They’re doing what I’m doing writing this blog—living in their heads where the action is. We can’t tell the difference between physical and mental reality, so come to think that whatever crosses our minds is as real as it gets. It’s not that we’re crazy, it’s that everybody’s crazy and always has been since the first ape walked upright. We think of our personal planet as terra firma, and all those extraterrestrials from other planets are misguided pretenders, wild beasts, or infidels.

Which is pretty much the message my life has impressed upon me, and I’m trying to deal with in this blog that I’ve made the central focus of my life. I’ve got to have a little talk with myself, just between me and me. Here I am in my 193rd post trying to pull it all together as a coherent project to see what I’ve learned. That’s what life is, an opportunity to learn what’s going on, and the role I play in the process. I am none other than Peter Mark Roget determined to get his thesaurus in order as his contribution to posterity before he dies.

I just now came across a sentence I wrote at the head of a yellow pad while working on Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness: “We characterize situations in such a way that we relate to them by preserving our sense of self.” That way, we stay who we are, no matter what. Consciousness is all about self-preservation, about inventing a future to ensure we stay the same no matter how much our surroundings may change. A Post-it note stuck on the pad says “family, preschool, early childhood education.” That’s where we start. Exploring who I am, I keep coming across who I was as the leading character of my early life. My belly button hints at an even earlier life in the womb. Those formative months in my original matrix was the slow-motion big bang that led not only to my own conscious sense of self, but to the imaginary planet I wrap myself in as the so-called real world.

At the end of last night’s meeting, a frustrated fisherman looked like she was going to cry, then said through taut lips something to the effect, ‘I just realized that I’m the only one here trying to make a living and every one in this room is trying to keep me from doing that.’ Looking into her face, I saw her child self (in me) accusing her elder brothers (in me) of picking on the essential her (in me).

She was sending signals from her planet, which I interpreted in such a way to preserve my self-identity on my own planet. So do we relate one to another.

That’s what this blog is about, interplanetary communication. There’s no escaping it. To be heard, we all must address it—me on my planet, you on yours, Peter Mark Roget on his, Emily Dickinson on hers. The notion of “free speech” makes it sound easy—all we have to do is open our mouths and say whatever comes to mind. But if we want to count ourselves in the same solar system, there’s way more to it than that. I now see that “way more” as the point of our respectively being here with, and reaching out to, one another. Making that extra effort is the topic of this blog.

So that’s why I’m looking for a vocabulary that will allow my consciousness to speak with your consciousness. The words we inherit from our respective cultures are based on the assumption that we live in—and have equal access to—the same physical world. Which I don’t think accurately describes our true situation. If, from the outset, we don’t account for our unique personal identities and outlooks on what is real, then we will never be able to account for or address the true source of the general discord and unhappiness so rampant in what we experience of today’s world. Which makes it far easier to blame everyone other than ourselves for contributing to the problem.

We need new ways of looking at and talking about world situations from inside personal consciousness itself, not as we do now as if they were somehow external to ourselves. John Weir gave us percept language—the “you in me” and the “me in you”—to help us deal with personal relationships. That is, to create a framework for reporting on situations from our disparate perspectives. But we need a complete overhaul of the language we learned at our mother’s breast if we are to deal with people who learned other languages at other breasts. Is such a universal language of consciousness possible? Having come this far in 193 posts, I believe it is. For starters, here are thirty-seven words I have tried (or intended) to use meaningfully in this blog:

  1. Attention—the act of reaching out with full awareness
  2. Arousal—one’s level of biological excitation
  3. Expectancy—the view ahead of what might happen
  4. Action—engaging the world, the upshot of consciousness
  5. Acting in the world—an ongoing sequence of action
  6. Making ourselves happen—inventing the future
  7. Engagement—a flow of behavioral give and sensory take
  8. Loop of Engagement—acting and perceiving in the now
  9. Planning—figuring how to reach a desired goal
  10. Perception—the parade of patterns in sensory awareness
  11. Salience—the quality of being noticeable
  12. Perspective—one’s outlook within a particular situation
  13. Memory—residue of living a life
  14. Conceptual memory—ideas useful in many situations
  15. Episodic memory—mental replay of life-changing events
  16. Categorization—fitting concepts to percepts, & vice versa
  17. Integrity—Consciousness as a functional system
  18. Coherence—All of consciousness working together
  19. Judgment—what seems appropriate in a given situation
  20. Intentionality—habitual categorizations
  21. Meaning—achieving parity of percept with concept
  22. Idiom of being in the world—system of cultural belief
  23. Self—seat of biological values; the basic unit of survival
  24. Values—sex, food, sleep, health, shelter, safety, etc.
  25. Valence—positive, negative, or neutral regard
  26. Reflexive consciousness—introspection
  27. Assumption—unexamined belief
  28. Attitude—bias or emotional coloring of behavior
  29. Dream—consciousness without action or perception
  30. Aesthetic—whole consciousness in all its parts
  31. Emotion—hormonal coloring of awareness
  32. Feeling—self-awareness of attitude
  33. Motivation—driving urge to deliberate action
  34. Project—consciousness dedicated to achieving a goal
  35. Situation—an occasion for active consciousness
  36. Culture—the fitting of individuals to their surroundings
  37. Future-building—the point of consciousness

If there were to be a final exam for this blog, it might consist of identifying instances in which a few such terms are found to be meaningful to or relevant in your own inner life. That would be a test of the usefulness of what I have been blogging about. If they—such terms—are not applicable to your case, then I have been writing more for myself than for you. Leaving you free, as always, to create your own blog and live your own life.

I have had enough of living in a world where Israelis and Palestinians, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor make a display of not being able to talk, work, or live with one another. Which requires me to critique the way we do business as usual in today’s world. I sincerely believe that throwing grenades, stones, or epithets at each other is a sure sign we are not taking responsibility for our own ignorance of how the world really works. My conceit is that I am onto something in writing about consciousness inside-out. Something profoundly important in providing a new perspective for viewing our relationship with a world that is unknowable in and of itself apart from our personal outlook upon it. I want fishermen and eaters of fish to be able to carry on a sensible discussion that is meaningful to both sides in more-or-less the same way. That’s why I am working on this project week by week, post after post. I thought you ought to know. Particularly if you live in somewhat the same world on a planet similar to mine.

We might as well fly as high as we can

 

Reflection 149: Blind Walk

October 6, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Bending down, I reach into the front-loading dryer and scoop the jumbled laundry into my basket. Back in my apartment, I place the basket on my bed and begin to sort it—underwear in this pile, T-shirts here, sheets there, socks lined up by pattern and color along the edge of the mattress. Finding a dishtowel but no dishrag, I figure it’s hiding among the sheets, which I shake out—there, snug in the corner of the fitted one. I put the piles of clothing I have sorted away and make the bed.

A routine episode from almost any Saturday morning in the past twelve years. I am a creature of habit, and of sorting things into groups having similar characteristics—pencils, tomatoes, bugs, butterflies—courtesy of distinctions I make in my conscious mind. I am a classifier, a categorizer, a sorter into piles. And so are we all, as shown by the way we use language.

‘What is this, class?’ asks teacher reaching into her shoebox, holding up a red toy truck about two-and-a-half inches long.

‘A truck,’ answer the first-graders in unison.

What is it for?

‘Going places,’ says one; ‘Carrying stuff,’ says another.

‘What is this?’

‘A cow.’

‘What do cows give us?’

‘Milk;’ ‘Ice cream,’ says someone in back.

And this?

‘A house.’

‘Are you sure it’s not a store or a barn?’ 

‘It’s where people live.’

Except that teacher doesn’t heft a truck, boat, or house from the box—she is dealing strictly with miniature toys, simplified representations of familiar objects without motors, without internal organs, without windows or kitchens.  She is not teaching the class to discriminate on the basis of sensory details so much as to think in terms of broad categories of utility. She is having her students sort the world conceptually in terms of labeled ideas, not firsthand experience. This is more an example of cultural indoctrination than education.

Then there is the blind walk.

I get permission to take my class of seniors to the grounds of a large, unoccupied home in the neighborhood where we won’t bother anyone. I tell them the idea of the blind walk is to get to know the area, not by looking, but by feeling their way with their hands. I want them to concentrate on touch, sound, and smell—any and all senses except sight. They pair up, decide who is to go first. One is the ‘guardian’ whose job is to make sure the blind-folded ‘explorer’ doesn’t get hurt. Partners are to tactilely explore their surroundings for half an hour, then switch roles, trade the blindfold, and go at it for another half hour. My job is to keep everyone safe and active. At the end, students are to share  highlights from their experience as guardians and explorers, respectively.

For the watcher—me—the exercise turned out other than I had imagined. I presented it in terms of sensory exploration, but my students took that as a challenge to name objects they could not see. In twelve years of schooling, the ability to savor their sensory experience had been stripped from them. These were first graders grown large, but perceptually diminished. They could classify their experience, but not enjoy it. They were eager to identify whatever they came across by touch, but that was all. As soon as they said “pinecone,” “rock,” “stick,” “tree,” “grass,” or “gravel,” they moved on to something else without pausing to explore the feel or smell of what they had touched. Their approach was wholly and uniformly conceptual. Getting the “right” answer was the only thing that mattered. Even warmth from the sun was reduced to naming the source, not savoring how it felt on a particular day in early spring. We teachers had done our job too well, creating students who could sort the world into a standard set of categories—wholly bypassing personal experience, the basis of all pleasure and true knowledge.

As a result of what passes for education these days, many of our children fit themselves to a world of concepts and ideas, not sensory exploration. They get good at sorting things into bins, which has a certain utility, but is also sad because they developed that skill to please their elders. During the course of my life, I have watched an emphasis on concept formation descend through the grades from high school to grammar school to the earliest rungs of preschool. Our children are prepared by society to think and work categorically rather than develop their personal abilities to experience the wonders of this Earth.

My point is that, in the best of all possible worlds, consciousness relies heavily on both sensory and conceptual aspects of experience. To meet the challenges of life we need extensive practice in both realms. To a man or a woman, we are all latent artists and scientists, cooks and judges, poets and talk-show hosts. Lumping things together by sorting, classifying, categorizing on the basis of broad similarities is an essential life skill—but so too is distinguishing between specific features, qualities, and subtle differences. To know a thing, a person, or a field of endeavor requires not only knowing about their general characteristics, but acquainting their specific details as well through personal experience.

Much has been written about the objectivity or intentionality of consciousness, the being aware of things as wholes in themselves rather than in terms of their separate parts, qualities, or details. Consciousness initially renders the world in terms of recognizable units; it takes deliberate effort to analyze such units in terms of their myriad sensory components (hearing individual voices in the symphony of the whole). We are immediately conscious of coherent objects or scenes as overall images or summaries, so not to be overwhelmed by the jumble that William James described in his famous cartoon of infant consciousness as “one great, blooming, buzzing confusion.” In The Principles of Psychology (1890), James writes:

Any number of impressions, from any number of sensory sources, falling simultaneously on a mind which has not yet experienced them separately, will fuse into a single undivided object for that mind. The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must (italics deleted).

The overall effect being to achieve the unity of a scene or an object, a wholeness that must be discriminated into its parts through deliberate effort and refinement of attention. Much has been made of perception as a process for recognizing the world in terms of its fundamental units or categories. Aristotle treated those units of oneness as “modes of being,” as if they were properties of things in themselves. Kant saw them more as phenomena created by consciousness itself in its own terms through the process of apprehending the world. Gerald Edelman presents categorization as a quality of perception dictated by values inherent in the perceiver which are necessary to acting in the world adaptively for the sake of survival.

However we account for consciousness, attention, and awareness, we must allow for two types: 1) concrete, sensory perception, and 2) a more generally applicable type that is less specific and so more abstract and conceptual. Consciousness can balance or move between the two types, from the abstract to the concrete, and back again, encompassing both example and principle, token and type, species and genus, concept and percept. How the brain achieves this remarkable dynamic is not fully understood, but there is no doubt that both types can be joined in the workings of consciousness. Except that education tends to tip the balance toward the summary judgments of conception.

It strikes me that what I was doing in sorting my laundry in the first example above, the first graders were doing in labeling the teacher’s toy truck, and my seniors did on their blind walk—was casting abstract, conceptual expectations onto the world as a kind of outline for what we thought was possible in and appropriate to our respective situations. We then confirmed those expectations as they were fulfilled on those three occasion by acting appropriately to our situations, students calling out the name (as they had been taught) that fit most closely to their expectations as a kind of easy shorthand for the full-bodied (detailed perceptual) experience, and me sorting my laundry into piles I deemed appropriate to my subsequent tasks of putting clothes away and clean sheets on the bed. 

As I have often written, expectation is destiny. We don’t live in the world so much as in our expectations of what that world should be. We make the evidence of our eyes and ears conform to what we want to happen. Our stance toward the world, our fundamental attitude toward reality, determines how we act far more than the evidence of our senses. It as if we were wind-up toys that head off as soon as set on the floor. Education winds us up, life fulfills what we have been taught. That is, it is our preconceptions that drive us, not the existential facts of our lives.

This is the understanding I have been seeking since my first post to this blog in early October, 2008. Taking time off to reflect on my posted reflections, this is what I have discovered. As humans walking our diverse ways, we are condemned to find what our families, peers, teachers, and overall cultures have prepared us to find. We fit the world to whatever model of the world we have assembled over the course of our training. That is our reality. Which our experience inevitably fulfills because—contrary to public belief—perception follows and does not lead the dictates of conception.

Picture humans on their blind walks through life, judging and labeling what they find according to their acquired pre-dispositions, and that is my portrait of the human predicament of days gone by, which is identical to the one we find ourselves in today.

Cormorants

 

 

(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

 

(Copyright © 2009)

By “bird consciousness” I mean my inner experience of birds rather than whatever it is birds might be conscious of in their own minds. My consciousness of birds is challenging enough without venturing onto the slippery slope of what kind of world birds make for themselves.

To set the stage: yesterday I rowed to the island where workers were replacing the roof of the stone cabin my father built in 1941. The old roof had leaked on and off for almost 70 years, so my brother in Hamilton decided to fix the problem with a new one made of modern materials laid down by professionals. He was paying the bill; I wanted to get a few pictures of work in progress to show him what the job looked like.

On the island, I revert to my island self, camera ready, ever on the watch for the state of the tide, wind direction, shore erosion, wildlife, fallen trees, approaching storms, and other concerns. I talk with the roofers, take a few pictures, walk the trails. Everywhere I see and hear birds. Song and white-throated sparrows, loons, winter wrens, hermit thrushes, cormorants, ring-billed gulls, crows, red-breasted nuthatch, even an adult eagle in the nest. I am at home among old friends and close neighbors.

But blogging about consciousness as I do, I find the island less simple than it used to be. What is it about that flitting shape that says red-breasted nuthatch? What about those calls announces hermit thrush or loon? These are labels for interpretations of shapes, motion, coloring, size, sounds, settings, and expectations all pointing to one bird and not another. Conceptual birds at that. Birds in my head. Is that where they are? Are they stimuli which I recognize?  Representations of stimuli? Percepts by themselves? Percepts joined to concepts so I am able to identify the class they belong to? I came over to talk to the workers and here I am roaming the trails, talking to myself.

Such is my life these days. As both investigator and subject of my own introspection, I find little firm ground to anchor my boat to. I am ruled by mixed metaphors. Like the Indian clubs I wrote about the other day (see Reflection 131: Feedback), everything is up in the air. I am back with Aristotle trying to figure the relation between thinker, thought, and the thing thought about. How do words jibe with nonverbal experience? When I see a bird, what am I really seeing? Bird on branch? Representation in my head of bird on branch? Sensory or phenomenal bird on branch? Sensory and conceptual bird on branch at the same time? Fulfilled expectation of bird on branch? If not a mess, my bird consciousness seems at least more complicated than in the old days when a bird was a bird was a bird, always and forever.

It’s like trying to make sense of lichens that have the nature of both algae and fungi. I saw a lot of them yesterday on the island. Or slime molds—I saw bright yellow swarms of  them, too. Slime molds boast two different natures—fungal and animal. They crawl about the forest floor like so many amoebas—or massed mushrooms! It depends on how you look at them. Slime on the move, it can flow through tightly woven silk, then set spores and make more of the same stuff. Animal, vegetable, mineral? Hard to say. With free-floating nuclei not separated by cell membranes, they have herd and individual mentalities at the same time. After blogging about conscious-ness for nine months now, that’s how I feel about my own mind: hard to say what it is, where it is.

We talk about birds all the time as if they were up in the air, out on the water, or right here on the land. Yet every bird we see is clearly in our minds at the same time. Not all in one place but spread throughout in a great many separate representations—over 40 for visual aspects alone. To us, those collective representations are what the bird is. We don’t have immediate access to the bird itself that somehow bypasses our sensory apparatus, and there’s no little homunculus in a screening room watching the show. No, the bird can’t be in our eye as an upside-down optical image—that’s only the beginning. It’s there all right, but pixelated by individual photoreceptors which convert it to brain language in terms of ionic flows and neurotransmitters. From there on, for us, it’s existence is strictly electro-chemical.

Yet somehow birds are emergent properties that flit about consciousness as if in the aviary at the Washington Zoo. How do they get there by such a long route as if beamed down in an ion transporter at this very instant? Will I ever understand? Is it possible to understand? Does it make any sense to try to understand? What would happen if I just accepted the fact that consciousness happens, and let it go at that.

Then what would I blog about? My children, my day, what I had for lunch, or ideas other people wrote about without consulting me? No, at this stage of my life, I am called to blog about consciousness. That is, to enable consciousness to blog about itself. And consciousness, being an aspect of the universe, to give the universe a chance to blog about itself. That seems to be what I am doing. I didn’t ask for this, it’s just the position the universe has put me in, so I’m bent on meeting the assignment the best I can.

Start again. My topic today, class, is bird consciousness. Consciousness of birds, not by birds. One thing I know, it’s all in my head. Another thing is, my brain makes it happen, helped along by the rest of my body, and the situation I’m in as I construe it, along with my experience of that particular bird. So the bird image, meaningful as it is, is not alone. It exists in a situation that favors observation of birds—like me walking along a wooded trail where birds are apt to appear. I’m familiar with birds. I’ve been watching them for years, training myself to identify them from minimal clues. Lilt of a wing, coloration where I expect it to be, familiar call—these are in my head because I’ve taken pains to put them there. The bird is the end result of my learning to see birds as I have trained myself for many years.

So consciousness isn’t given out fully formed and operational but is learned bit-by-bit over a lifetime. Largely by trial and error. I’ve made a lot of blunders and misidentifications. But with the restricted set of birds I am apt to see on the island, I’m not all that bad. Even with sandpipers, which are notoriously hard to tell one from another. Some sandpipers. Some of the time when conditions are favorable.

So there’s more to consciousness than simply opening your eyes or your ears. Consciousness is learned by doing. It hoists itself by its own bootstraps, getting better at it every day. In my case, it doesn’t just happen to me; I make it happen. Not just because it’s there, but because it’s important. To me. At the time. I set the standard of achievement. That’s what it means to be me. Consciousness is self-determining because any particular person is self-motivated and invested in the results. Like riding a bicycle or rowing a boat, consciousness is a skill. We have to learn to avoid the pitfalls if we want to get it right.

Let me talk about rowing. It’s ready to mind because I rowed to the island and back yesterday. It’s always an exercise in navigation, getting from A to B across a mile of waves and currents, my back to my path through the water, which is every bit as hard as it might seem. Like consciousness, rowing is a learned skill. Yesterday, for instance, I could see where I wanted to land a mile away from where I launched, but there were three tidal crosscurrents I couldn’t see but knew from experience were there to be dealt with. The challenge was figuring which direction to head out, taking those currents into account, in order to end up where I wanted to be on the far side of my crossing. The currents I would be rowing across moved at three different speeds, so I had to average their speed and width in choosing my initial heading, otherwise they would sweep me well past my landing of choice. Normally, I would factor-in wind strength and direction as well, but the wind was light so I could focus on the currents, which at the time of my crossing were at greatest strength. To make a long story short, I adjusted my heading every few minutes in light of what portion of my trip lay ahead—ending up right where I wanted to be with minimal expenditure of effort.

A lesson that applies to consciousness as well. You have to prefigure it if you want to get it right, taking feedback into account the whole way. We get good at those skills we practice the most. Taking consciousness as a given, we find it full of surprises we aren’t good at anticipating. We often get it wrong without realizing it. As in baseball, if we don’t see the drop or curve coming, we swing and we miss. Seeing consciousness as an acquired skill, we do our best to navigate the crosscurrents sure to throw us off course.

In a very real sense, consciousness is what we make of it. Like the jinni in the bottle, it will grant the wishes we lay on it. In speaking of pitfalls and crosscurrents of consciousness, I am speaking metaphorically, which is the only way I have of giving my inner workings some kind of shape I can deal with. Even neuroanatomists have the same problem in naming parts of the brain: the amygdala looks like an almond (which is what the word means in Latin), and the hippocampus like a seahorse (ditto). We paint the brain as a “computer” with the job of “processing information” for similar reasons. Are there really “representations” of stimuli in the mind as Aristotle claimed (so-called “likenesses of things”), or did he put them there for us? Would we ID “reality” if we saw it, or is that just a name we use to mask our ignorance? I suspect consciousness works the other way round, reality fulfilling the vision we entertain beforehand in experience and then cast on the world. That is, reality is what we make of it through consciousness.

If that is true, then much of the sense brain science makes of the brain is literally that—a manmade balm to suit the preconceptions brought to the study of the brain and its mind. Inadvertently but dependably, is it possible the conceptual tools we use are salting the mine even as we dig? Is there any way to dig without hitting upon the preconceptions with which we advance? That seems to be how consciousness works, tailoring our findings to our circumstances, the situations we find ourselves in as we construe or imagine them—and then make them come true. That is certainly how fiction works. Are works of nonfiction any different as far as consciousness is concerned?

To bring these heartfelt conjectures to a conclusion of sorts, let me tell you what just happened. For months now I’ve been piling papers and magazines I want to save on the little table at the end of my bookcase, balancing each addition very carefully so not to disturb things. Next to the pile is a packed bin of stuffed file folders on one side, a stack of mounted photos and posters too big to fail because too big to file. As I was writing the last sentence of the paragraph before this one, the whole construction let go and is now heaped on the floor. Like what I’ve been saying about consciousness, it was all my own doing.

Ring-Billed Gull-72

 

(Copyright © 2009)

If it is true that there is no little homunculus in our heads enjoying the passing parade, it is equally true that there is not even a parade. As for representations of a parade, there are a great many (on the order of at least a 100 in any given brain), all dealing with different aspects of the parade, but there is no one street corner or theater where the float of Humpty Dumpty, say, passes by drawn by six white horses in living Sense-Surround.

Mr. Dumpty is represented by action potentials, ions streaming through membrane channels, neurotransmitters flowing across synapses, some degree of synchrony between neurons firing in different brain modules, and so on, none of which can account for the representation (or illusion) of reality, much less for reality (the parade) in-and-of itself.

Yet we keep talking about the brain as an “information processor,” as if information from the world somehow gets into our heads and forms a representation that can be taken for the world itself. Ionic or chemical signals (suggestive of patterns of energy), yes; information, no. As for interpreting such signals, each and every brain is on its own in that regard. Those signals mean to us solely what our respective minds take them to mean. Our surroundings provide patterns of energy, we map our understanding of what they might mean on those patterns.

We interpret patterns of energy from our surroundings as clues to the situation we are in at the moment, then interpret that situation as meaningful from our point of view based on our investment in that situation. Which varies, depending on how we choose to regard it. Our minds deal in the currency of conjecture and speculation, not information (as if the meaning were determined beforehand by an unidentified agent who is not in our head).

Which is not what we commonly assume or even read in some neural science textbooks. It is easier to assume information enters the brain through the senses, is coded in terms of patterns of neural activity, and is magically “represented” in one form or another, then interpreted by the mind—interpreted to have the same meaning it had on the far side of any sensory apparatus, without giving an account of how such a miracle could happen.

Energy is not meaningful in and of itself. And it is energy, not information, that impinges on our senses. Interpretation requires a context—some sort of situation within which energy takes on meaning in reference to relationships characterizing that situation. And it is no easier for situations to enter consciousness through the senses than it is for information or “reality” to make the same journey. For us, situations exist in terms of relationships between traces of brain activity, which means we derive them from ionic and molecular flows in various modules in our heads. A pretty neat trick.

Yet everyday wisdom has it that there is a one-to-one correspondence between what goes on in the world and what goes on in the minds of those who live in the world. It would be far more accurate to reverse that depiction and say that the world has no existence other than that extended to it by the minds in which it lives. For the world, in fact, does live in us and not vice versa. When we die, our versions of the world also die. Based on a few selected patterns of energy flow impinging on our senses, we project our hypothesis that the world is in such-and-such a state onto those patterns—voila! the “real” world.

That is, contrary to our naive assumptions, the world reflects to us representation we concoct in our minds consistent with the few patterns of energy flow we take the trouble to interpret. What is real is the world in our heads, the subjective (meaningful) world that guides our behavior. That other (outer) world is largely a mystery to us. We inform it according to our preferences at the moment. Information flows outward as mapped onto energy flows which are inherently meaningless until interpreted; interpretation takes place in the mind (ours or others’), not the material world.

What I’m trying to get at is how we can seemingly rise above our own consciousness to observe ourselves interpreting the world through the medium of the energy flows in which we are immersed—and which we narrowly interpret to suit ourselves. That is, I’m out to show how Michael Gazzaniga’s postulate of the left-brain interpreter provides an explanation for a great deal of human behavior that causes so much trouble in a world we can’t see very clearly for what it is.

What I’m after is ways of doing better by that world than we have done up till now. Since the world conforms to our ideas of the world, doing better by ourselves means doing better by the world, and every one of its inhabitants. We’ve had it backwards all this time. It is time to straighten the world by straightening ourselves, an approach so ancient it seems almost new to us. I think we can do it.

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

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.

 

¦

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I’m on the phone to FairPoint to change my service. For 20 minutes, here’s what I get:

 

Thank you for holding. Your call will be answered in just a moment.

 

Every effort is being made to assure your wait is as short as possible. Thank you for holding.

 

Your call is very important to us. Thank you for waiting during this brief delay.

 

We know your time is important and appreciate your patience while on hold.

 

Thank you for holding. Someone will be right with you.

 

Thank you for calling today. We’ll be with you in just a moment.

 

Nice man, nice lady. You can tell by their voices. So concerned that I not waste my time. So caring. Every 20 seconds, they say the same thing a new way, with distracting music in between—all to keep me from realizing how annoyed I am at being continuously put off.

 

Am I conscious? No, I can’t do anything, so there’s no point in being alert. I’m just sitting here, annoyance turning to anger turning to Richter-scale fury.

 

Why do I let canned voices get under my skin? Because it’s an asymmetrical situation. Garry Kasparov versus IBM’s Deep Blue. They—the nice voices—are in total control. I can’t tell them to go f—k themselves. They just keep jabbing away at my brain. I can’t even defend myself because I have business with them, so have to hang on till I get a live one in India. They’re the phone company, I want to speak to an operator. But there is no operator. Just voices that recite meaningless phrases in my ear.

 

What interests me about this “encounter” is how familiar the situation has become in modern life. When you want to talk to someone, you get a recording—“If you know your party’s extension, you may dial it at any time during this message.” Yeah, sure, if I knew the extension, if I knew who my party was.

 

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who speak through recorded announcements, and those trapped into listening to them out of necessity.

 

When I turn on my computer, the screen says “Welcome.” Good old Microsoft, so well-bred and friendly. Drop dead, I say, but it never seems to hear. I got a letter today from Joe Biden: “Dear Steve,” it says, “Words can’t describe my gratitude for the friendship that you’ve shown President Obama and myself.” I get the drift—send money! Yep, the box with the lowest figure is for $100. Then there’s a bunch of numbers and letters, which is probably secret code for Dear Steve. Dear Joe, I’m currently low on cash, could you donate a century note to help me through hard times? 57286705    A4CD139

 

I am an ardent environmentalist who actually practices what he preaches. When I lived on $3,000 a year in the 1980s, I gave a third of it to environmental organizations. Ever since, I’ve gotten a lot of mail in the spirit of, Keep it coming, Steve, Buddy. Money makes you a lot of friends. Friends who are good at asking for more. At Christmas, I am always surprised how popular I am. Asymmetry, again. Like all those radio preachers who’d be happy to save your mortal soul (for a considerable donation).

 

Asymmetrically—that’s how society is built. The benefits dribble down as long as the money keeps flowing upward. Royalty at the top, faceless drones in the steerage below.

 

Which means consciousness is asymmetrical as well. There’s the view from the palace, and the view from the street. Those who rule the system build the scenery for each point of view. That is, they govern the media that enforce who gets to see/hear/do what.

 

In essence, this disconnect in consciousness stems from there being two different sets of rules, one for the ups, another for the downs. Emperors can put peasants on hold, but if peasants try that in reverse, they’re dead or in prison.

 

Knowing your station in life means accepting the rules the higher-ups want you to follow. They play by their rules, you play by their rules—what could be fairer than that?

 

As I keep saying, consciousness is situational. That is, your awareness depends on your life situation. Where you are, where you’ve been, where you’re headed, who you’re with, what they’re doing, what you’re doing, and so on. Consciousness arises in context. You’re part of the context for those at the top. They’re part of the context for those in the crowd down below.

 

Whenever you find yourself holding the phone while soothing voices tell you over and over how important you are, you know your consciousness is irrelevant. You don’t really exist for them. The situation is asymmetrical, which is a nice way of saying you’re living a lie.

 

On the Web, the person you’re chatting with may not be what he seems. You know television presents a hokey reality—even the reality shows. Same for movies. Even so-called documentaries are made from the producer’s point of view, the producer being the guy with money who brings it to the screen for his own purposes.

 

The biggest lies come from government. Between elections, the electorate is on hold for the duration. When have you ever gotten a straight answer to a letter you sent to your senator? What you get is meant to appeal to every constituent, so appeals to no flesh-and-blood person. As it is, we elect members of political parties to office, not human beings. Nowhere are such parties mentioned in the Constitution, yet there they are, taking or losing power for years—even decades—at a time. In the meantime, the electorate is on hold: “Your vote is very important to us. Thank you for waiting.”

 

The blogosphere is supposed to be the antidote to all this, at least according to those in the business of blogging. The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging deals with the future of news media and ends on this note:

 

We don’t know how this will all shake out. But we do know that in the blogosphere, as we all add our own critiques and new information,1 something starts to emerge that looks more like the truth.2 We’ve been fascinated to read studies showing that asking more and more people a question (e.g., “How tall is the tower of London?”) and averaging their answers yields something closer to the truth than asking one person alone.3 This is—in a nutshell—how the blogosphere is reshaping the media. In the past, voices were necessarily limited. So the information we received was limited as well. Now, as everyone feels free to contribute, we get a clearer picture of reality.4 If the function of the media is to inform, and to get the real story, then we’d say blogs are shaping the media in a positive way.5 That’s true even if come 2043, we’ll have to use something else to line our birdcages (page 167f, italics and notes added).

 

Little in this paragraph makes sense to anyone but the writer, who surely breathes rarefied air in a penthouse high above the street. Here we have a powerhouse in the blogosphere tooting the virtues of his or her chosen medium. Whoever would do such a thing? A person interested in attracting ad revenues, for one. Or a celebrity blogger boosting his own image, for another.

 

As to the specifics singled out in italics, I say this:

1 That cloud floating around the blogosphere may contain a few particles of information, but most of it is opinion or even disinformation.

2 The arbiters of truth are not bloggers at large but those actually in the know, who make up a small fraction of one percent of all bloggers.

3 Depends who you ask. The average opinion may not be more accurate than the opinion of one person. The sample is likely to be skewed, with truth far to one side or the other. Look at the arguments for creationism, or the existence of God, for example. I’d advise asking the one who had taken the trouble to measure the height of that tower.

4 There is no necessary correlation between the number of bloggers and their access to so-called reality. Concerning consciousness and understanding, most of the people can be fooled much of the time.

5 The blogosphere at large is not an example of the new media. People blog for all sorts of reasons, few bearing on media or the news per se. The writer takes the efforts of a small minority of clear-headed bloggers as emblematic of the mishmash as a whole.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

My basic premise in writing this blog is that most people assume their consciousness gives them immediate access to the real world. Or put differently, that the world really is as their senses depict it. My aim in this series of posts is to test that hypothesis by examining a variety of episodes drawn from my own consciousness to see if they are consistent with such an assumption or not.

 

My findings up till now are that my personal consciousness is not a one-to-one replica of any world other than the one in my head, which is demonstrably one of a kind. As for the real world, I have no way of recognizing it by sight, sound, touch, scent, taste, or any combination of senses. It is always my world, that fragment of a world my consciousness presents to me at the time. Does that make it real? To me, perhaps, but not to anyone else. And even I have to test it by acting in that world to see how it accords with my expectations. Sometimes it might, but usually not.

 

What is real is that I have to ease into my world through a series of rough approximations of how I think it might be configured. My world is my current situation as I construe it. I make a move, and the feedback I get tells me whether or not I might be on the right track. Slowly refining my consciousness through a series of such tests, I arrive at an operational view of my situation that meets my standards of proof. For practical purposes, that serves as my current reality.

 

Beyond that, if others replicate my tests and come to similar conclusions, that adds some weight to my convictions. If those whose judgments I respect—my peers—tend toward consensus on the matter, that adds even more weight. But there are always rough edges that are inconclusive or surprising, so we have to investigate them before we can reach full consensus.

 

And so it goes. Reality is a moving target, a goal we can aim at but never attain because by the time we reach it, it has moved on beyond us. What is our situation now? we ask, as we run through the whole process one more time. 

 

What is our situation now? That is always the main challenge to consciousness. Unless we develop a feel for what’s currently happening, we can’t act appropriately—and survival depends on our fitness to our actual situation. Yesterday, it was this; what is it today? Think of how we try to assess our situation when we meet someone we know:

 

How are you? How’s it going? How’s business? How you doin? What’s going on? What’s happening? What’s up? What’s new? What’s the score? Who’s winning?

 

We ask newspapers, magazines, Web sites, blogs, and hundreds of TV channels to fill us in on the latest bulletins about the lay of the land. About the situations we are in, the ones our fate depends on. Which are invariably complex and fast-changing. So we need more and more details about what’s happening. Locally, regionally, nationally, globally, we want to know so we can anticipate what’s coming and act accordingly. This is not an intellectual exercise to stave off Alzheimer’s. This is a matter of life and death. My life and death. Of updating my personal consciousness so I can act appropriately regarding my current placement in the world I take to be real.

 

Gang wars, wandering bears, serial killers, terrorists, uprisings, bombings, stock prices, epidemics, tsunamis, hurricanes—I want to know how these and other events might affect my personal welfare. I depend on consciousness to keep me informed. To tell me what’s happening, who’s winning, how business is going.

 

Friends are people we trust with the details of our personal situation; strangers and enemies are people we fear might misuse those details, so we reply with socially-acceptable conventions when they ask what’s going on. We practice sizing up situations by playing games or watching sporting events—rule-governed situations where we are familiar with the territory, know the score, and recognize all the players. Being on the winning side tells us we must be doing something right.

 

Trouble is, events in the real world don’t always follow rules. We track cyclones and hurricanes so we can predict where they’re headed, and listen to Earth rumblings to tell us where the next earthquake or volcanic eruption will be. But terrorist attacks, wandering bears, and stock prices, for instance, defy rule-governed predictions.

 

If the cultural world were a walled-off precinct within the natural world, it might be easier to understand in terms of natural law. But consciousness often confounds nature and culture, so it is hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins, the admixture defying accurate description, much less prediction. Even the so-called hard sciences are disciplines within consciousness, so they are never as pure or reliable as their practitioners claim. Just wait a week and you’ll see. A given situation is usually more complicated than it seems at first glance, reality more elusive and harder to pin down than we think it should be.

 

Gauging reality is essentially a matter of soul searching. Of probing consciousness for clues to where we are and what is going on. It is more a matter of raising doubts and asking questions than mindless belief, which terminates exploration before it can get started. The real nature of the current situation is always a matter of conjecture, informed opinion, and judgment. All of which bear on the degree of conviction with which we feel we can rely on consciousness to tell the straight story.

 

The pursuit of reality begins with uncertainty, not surety. You’ve got to catch yourself being conscious of yourself being conscious, then ask why things appear as they do. To know reality, first you must know thyself. Which can only follow from a course of self-doubt (for starters, never take your senses or emotions at face value), followed by self-exploration, and endless self-reflection. Keep in mind that reality, should you come across it, is likely to be rigged (by yourself or someone you love or admire).

 

The first question to ask is: How do I know that I know what I think I know? If you get beyond that one, your judgment of conscious reality will improve remarkably. But in a world of hype, spin, illusions, lobbying, bribes, favors, payments, donations, traditions, strong opinions, public relations, and outright deceit, that is likely to be only the beginning of a life devoted to inquiry and the pursuit of reality.

 

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