376. Worlds in Collision

December 6, 2014

If we need proof that our minds are sustained by loops of sensory-motor engagement with the world, such proof is amply provided by how upset we get when our loops are interrupted for any reason.

“Not now! Can’t you see I’m busy?” “Go ask your mother!” “Don’t you have better things to do?” “Shut the door as you go out!” “Turn it down for God’s sake!” And a host of expletives that erupt without warning on just such occasions.

Concentration takes dedicated effort. Not only on sensory perception, but on coordinated judgment and action at the same time. Mental coherence is the issue. Voices of children and telemarketers break into our trains of thought, disrupting the flow, causing us to break stride, falter, and suffer confusion.

This is the end of world order as we know it. Distraction, interruption, competition, contradiction, opposition—we loathe them all, and do everything we can to suppress or avoid them. Physically. Violently. Repeatedly. We retreat to our rooms or cubicles and turn on soft music. Or we lash out in anger at a world that won’t let us alone. We love the worlds we create for ourselves at great personal effort and sacrifice. Our expressions, gestures, and body language warn others not to mess with what they can’t understand. Not to tread where they don’t belong.

Which is why the human world is and always has been in such turmoil. There isn’t one world out there but currently more than seven billion different worlds, each wrought to the liking of its creator and most ardent defender. Shouldn’t the right not to be offended or thwarted be one of our most fundamental freedoms?

What we fashion for ourselves within our sheltering black boxes, we cast upon the waters in which we are bathed, as if those waters were an extension of our private domains. As if Cuba were subject to U.S. jurisdiction. Ukraine subject to Putin’s dreams of glory.

If only we could put a one-way mirror in the end of our box so we could cast our gaze outward whenever we wanted to, but the seven billion couldn’t see in. All we want is freedom of thought and the right not to be bothered or thwarted. Is that asking too much? A right to maintain a personal sanctuary from which we can engage as we wish?

It’ll never happen. Engagement is a two-way street. Traffic flows both ways. Imposing our inner worlds on our outer worlds isn’t engagement at all; it is authoritarianism, tyranny, a forlorn hope. We need the world to temper our fantasies. Just as the world needs our separate inner worlds to spark the next stage of our common evolution.

Engagement is an art, not a right to have things our own way. Free speech lets us say what we want; whether anyone is listening is another matter entirely. If we are smart, we will go out of our way to balance sensory input against behavioral output, striving to learn by trial and error to steer a wise course.


(Copyright © 2009)


Writing this blog, I seem to be above myself looking down upon my own self being conscious of myself being conscious. Is that how it is? How many copies of me are there, anyway? Is there really such a thing as a self or a soul?


What I do know is that I am an orderly assemblage of molecules and cells working together to accomplish some purpose in life. What purpose might that be? The usual: obtaining food, drink, warmth, shelter, sex. In a word, survival. When it comes to my personal molecules, they have work to do; the longer they keep working together, the better. And what work am I—are the molecules I am—here to do? Basically, reproduce. Create more molecular assemblages after my own pattern. Stick around to help them get over the rough spots so they can reproduce and survive in their turn.


Trouble is, the particular molecules and cells I am talking about aren’t really mine. They create me; I am their creature. They make me who I am. In studying my own consciousness, I am really employed by a physical entity—this body—that is monitoring itself. “I” as a separate entity don’t exist. There’s no “me” apart from this body I call “mine,” which really it isn’t.


Since this body didn’t create itself but was conceived, nurtured, and raised by parent bodies situated in a community, it is fair to ask who owns this body? Parents? Community? Tribe? Gene line? Planet Earth that sponsors us all? That nearby star sharing its energy with its planetary offspring? The universe responsible for spawning the sun? Back to whatever triggered the Big Bang?


Who am I, really? Do I even exist?


What generally goes unnoticed is that while consciousness is made up of concrete sensory, emotional, and cognitive details emerging one after the other in more-or-less coherent order, the self whose consciousness it is—namely me, myself, and I—is a total abstraction compiled from myriad instants of ongoing consciousness as filed away in various forms of memory. I am a construct or concept, not a person. A construct in whatever mind will have me, which seems to be the one whose neural processes created me in the first place and keep me going.


I don’t have or entertain consciousness; consciousness has or entertains me. I am a figment of this body’s imagination—of Earth’s imagination.


No wonder existence is so tenuous. When life hangs by an imaginary thread, the gentlest wind is disruptive. If you think you’re in charge of things, but you’re not, others will treat you as a prideful usurper. An upstart. A wannabe. A hoax.


How humiliating! I thought I was head honcho all along; now my own body is in revolt. Without a home, where can I go? Where is sanctuary? Where can I go to collect myself, which is a forlorn hope—as if figments had any substance worth collecting.


That’s the kind of bind studying your own consciousness can get you into. I know very little about not much at all. The king is dead; long live . . . whoever. It’s humbling. Good thing we all do it—make the same mistake. From my point of view that makes me king of fools.


But out of the ashes, Phoenix lifts its scrawny self with its talons. Don’t waste time looking at origins, look at deeds. Bodies are actors in situations where actions count in finding food, drink, warmth, shelter, sex—in furthering survival. This particular body is an actor, a mover, a shaker, a blogger. It has both incentives and motives for keeping itself going.


Here’s the good part. Between actions on one hand, and incentives and motives on the other, this body has a space for deciding what to do next regarding the situation it finds itself in. That space is consciousness. Which emerges on its own within this very body. One more body that’s here to act, and act now! So let’s get with life’s program and forget about origins. Actions are what count. Look ahead to future deeds, not back to murky beginnings.


Consciousness fills the space between incentives drawing the body ahead, motives pushing from behind, and the actual behaviors the body will perform in adjusting itself to the conditions in which it hopes to survive. Within constraints of motivation and appropriateness, consciousness considers possibilities for action, weighs their energy costs and likely effectiveness, selects the action plan it judges (on the basis of past experience) most likely to succeed—and commits to action.


Without any need to fall back on a fictitious self, consciousness handles the whole process. It fills the void it was created to fill. It is moved to act, and it does. Then on to the next round of feedback, modification of plans, and refined actions. Through successive approximations, guided by feelings and sensory feedback, this body moves ahead (or not as the case may be). Either way, it keeps trying, doing its thing, living its life.


The self, if we insist there be one, goes along on the ride to record the adventure. Memory is this body’s scribe. Whether that memory is working or long-term, emotional or situational, it truly belongs to this body, not any self, soul, or actor having jurisdiction over the body. The self is a fiction we create to give us a role in the process of living, which is always this body’s doing. We think we give a name to each self as it is born, but we are giving bodies an identity, not selves, not independent souls.


When in the end this body can no longer keep going and dies, the body that has lived the life is buried or burned. Meanwhile, its name is reserved for the fictitious soul or self, which is regarded as though a bloodless spirit alone were responsible for the deeds this body and its consciousness pulled off in surviving as long as it did. Which isn’t fair, but there it is.