Evolution’s achievement of consciousness is a collaborative effort between animal life and its Earthly environment.

Consciousness does not reside in the brain so much as it is a product of life’s engagement with its home planet. When Henry Adams walked out of Chartres Cathedral a changed man and wrote Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, the cathedral remained as it was before he arrived, undiminished, unconsumed.

Half of Adams’ engagement came from his attention, concentration, and action; the other half was the cathedral’s doing as a provocative source of engaging stimulation.

If we give ourselves to life, life gives us back in kind. Consciousness springs from just such rounds of give-and-take. It is not something we possess, or have a right to. It is something we invite to happen by opening ourselves to our environment, and trading with it as we are able.

I didn’t need cognitive neuroscience to tell me that, nor a suite of fMRIs and other a la mode research apparatus. What I needed was half of the mind that has sustained me through life, engaged with the other half of environmental stimulation that, taken together, have spurred my thinking, awareness, and experience all my days, including the writing of this blog.

As phenomenologists say, consciousness is always of one thing or another. It isn’t a thing in itself so much as a reacher-toward things. That is called intentionality. As intentional beings, we are always intent on solving this or that problem.

We all start out in life as a quickened egg—largest cell in the human body. And then in nine months run through the developmental cycle it took life itself three-and-a-half billion years to complete. We are modern-day miracles, inventing our own brand of consciousness during our brief stay in the womb.

Everyone’s consciousness is unique because the specifics of its origins are unique—DNA, grandparents, parents, immune system, etc., plus engagements in the womb from conception on. Engagements initiated by our genes, but of which we get the gist and do our part as birth approaches.

We are like an impromptu melody played in the distance, only that melody is inside us, at the core of our being on Earth. We are here not only because our parents conceived us, but because Earth has provided them with the wherewithal to produce us. We are Earthlings from our earliest beginnings, with our own ration of Earthly (perhaps universal) consciousness.

We become citizens of the cosmos that truly begat us, so are eager to show our stuff to anyone who will engage us during our brief stay in the area.

The view of consciousness I offer in this blog is very different from the version that neuroscientists are so relentlessly searching for in the brain. Consciousness is not made of matter in physical form; it is an interaction between specific lifeforms and the worlds they are born to, as Henry Adams was born to a world containing Chartres Cathedral. Scientists won’t find that magnificent structure in anyone’s brain because (as in Adam’s case) it’s at the other end of an engagement that went on for years under all sorts of weather, light, shifts in attitude, and altering comprehension.

I have tried to keep up with published writings about consciousness, but I have yet to find any that make sense to me on the topic as I personally experience it in living my own life. And introspection is so out of fashion in the twenty-first century that I am not likely to meet up with any before I die.

Am I that eccentric? That far out on the fringe? That much of a deviant? I think not. From my standpoint, others are barking up the wrong tree, looking for a physical state of some kind, when consciousness is an ongoing process of engagement between a living mind and whatever object of its notice gives a jolt sufficient to draw attention.

Loops of engagement are way more than feedback loops. Rather than stabilizers, they are disrupters, attention getters, annoyers, or announcers of success. In short, situation creators. They set the parameters of intelligence in such a configuration that arouses a meaningful response leading to a review of options and judgment of what is to be done.

As I visualize them, loops of engagement are kindlers of consciousness leading to appropriate action. They start with disturbing perceptions that create meaningful situations to which intelligence reacts with discernment in judging what plan of action to put into effect. They are mind organizers whose job is to transform perceptions into behaviors suitable to the occasion.

Essential to our humanity, none of us would get through the day without one. And probably not be likely to get through the next five seconds. I call them loops because they keep going on and on. Coming back to slightly altered situations, tweaking a little here and there, more like a helix than a circle, but running on till the job is done. Then it’s on to the next job, and the one in line after that.

Go to the store for groceries, lay out the kitchen, make dinner, serve it up, eat it, congratulate the cook, clear the table, wash the dishes, put dishes away, lay things out for breakfast. How else would we manage to get through the day? If such engagements didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.

But they do exist in what William James called the stream of consciousness, the endless succession of one-thing-after-another that we dub collectively conscious life. They are our tools for building a succession of worlds about ourselves as we go through the day.

Loops of engagement are world-puzzle solvers that connect our minds to our mysterious environment, but that have to keep checking because that environment is bound to change. We can never get it just right. The world is too complex, too dynamic, too flexible, too uncertain—and our view too limited and schematic. Whatever we think it is in the instant is bound to be wrong.

So we play the game of successive approximation. Moving in the direction of certain understanding—but like the bounding hare, the world always gets away from us. The more certain we are that we understand what’s going on, the more apt we are to be wrong. Our firmest beliefs are so much foam on the waves. Life is more like splashing around in shallow water than swimming in a straight lane.

Loops of engagement are the best tool we’ve got for figuring out our situation at the moment. They never stop; they never give up; they never claim success. Like our streams of consciousness, they just keep going, until we fall into bed too tired to keep up the pursuit.

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Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Actions (including speech) are how we get out of our heads and make ourselves known to the world. To reach the point where considered action becomes possible, we must shift our attention from the felt situation that motivates us to judging what kind of act would suit that situation. Once in that place, we can set goals for ourselves, engage in projects and relationships meant to lead us toward achieving those goals, and then implement them by acting within our projects and relationships to make our situated selves happen in the world, which is as far as we can go on one particular run of conscious activity. We then start on a new run by paying attention to incoming sensory impressions as shaped by expectancy and arousal, which redirect us to a revised understanding of our situation, and on to a further round of mental activity.

So runs our loop of engagement, from expectancy to arousal, attention and sensory impressions; on to interpretation of those impressions, understanding them, feeling and valuing their import in the form of an experiential situation as an extension of our personal history; and then on to judging the significance of that situation, setting goals, planning projects and relationships, and finally, implementing them in terms of intentional actions in the world.

Consciousness doesn’t circle so much as spiral because every round is different. Details get refined, skills improved, awareness enlarged, goals more closely approached—all heightening the sense of engagement. Two things escape our attention because we cannot attend them: 1) the working of the brain in supporting the mind, and 2) the working of the world in formulating it’s response to our individual projects and relationships as enacted, which remains to be sensed and interpreted during further rounds of engagement.

In summary, our loops or spirals of engagement comprise formation of sensory impressions, construction of felt situations from those impressions as interpreted, and taking appropriate action in light and fulfillment of key situations. Round by round, consciousness streams by as it does on a journey or in games of tennis, baseball, chess, or charades. The play’s the thing; our engagements are ongoing. If we take a break, we simply engage in other ways, as in dreams and reveries, or while on vacation.

As children, we grow into ourselves, learning how to engage within the intimate circumstances of our rearing. As a result, there are as many styles of engagement as there are childhoods. For instance, as adults, those who learn to fend for themselves without empathic support often end up being out for themselves alone, or solely for their sort of people, and don’t worry about the general well-being or self-fulfillment of others so much as hitting the jackpot or scoring points for themselves. They can be highly competitive, even thriving on the misfortune of others, on making a killing, inciting violence, or waging wars of aggression. Cooperative or diplomatic engagements are not their thing. They act as if they were alone in the universe, so worry only about what they can get out of it, not what they can give to or share with others. Their game is king of the mountain, which pits one against everyone else, a stark parody of Darwinian evolution. “One for one, all for none,” is their cry, the source of a great deal of poverty, suffering, and human misery.

No, engagement with others is the key to survival, starting with being on good terms with yourself through introspection and self-understanding, moving up to satisfying and respectful engagements with others (often unlike yourself) through play, working together, cooperating—each identifying with all as multiple variations on a single theme. If you can’t see yourself in others, you are missing the point of why each one is unique. Which is to to add to a whole through individuation, complementarity, and cooperation. So do we all fit together in forming one human family within one earthling family, which we are in both cases.

No man and no woman is an island (Donne’s metaphor), entire of itself. We all may be unique, but we are not alone, and never have been. We are made to engage again and again—our minds are proof of that.

Each man and each woman is one piece of the puzzle (my metaphor) of humanity, and of all earthlings beyond. After 299 posts, that is my message. As ever, I remain, y’r brother, —Steve from planet Earth

Copyright (C) 2012 by Steve Perrin

Introspection proceeds on two levels at once: it is the study of our conscious engagements, with the aim of inferring our unconscious motivations for entering into them in the first place.

Introspection directs subjective attention to experiences of interest in terms of: 1) their sensory qualities and relationships, 2) our subsequent interpretation of those sensory attributes, and 3) our aim of placing them within a field of understanding as a basis for taking appropriate action in the world.

Since our engagements are kinetic and ever changing, introspection opens subjective personal consciousness to the ongoing study and analysis required to achieve self-awareness through self-reflection. To understand why we do what we do, we must understand our inner selves, not the mysterious world with its cohort of relative strangers.

That is my thesis in writing this blog. To understand the world as we find it, we must look first at the near end of our active engagements with that world, then at the far end as revealed by the sensory impressions that world makes on us. It is the looping interaction between our behavior in the world and the subsequent impressions we get back that is the stuff of the unique, personal consciousness streaming through our respective heads.

The world we know is the world as we see it, not the world as it is. To improve the world we must improve our seeing of the world for which we are responsible.

If each of us does that, it follows that the world will become a better place for us all, not just the aggressive, militant, rich, and powerful.

That is why I engage in writing this blog.

How do you engage yourself these days? As ever, y’r friend, –Steve from planet Earth

(Copyright © 2009)

I pile old newspapers on the floor in front of my coat closet. When the pile gets so unruly I can’t open the closet door, I heap it into my arms and head for the recycling (formerly “trash”) room. Just now, leaving my apartment, I take three strides, then think of the empty gallon milk jug I’d placed on the floor in the kitchen where I wouldn’t miss it. Except I did miss it. Go on, or go back for the jug? That choice lights up my mind for about a tenth of a second. Still moving, I see that I have to make a decision. Normally, I hate interruptions and would continue whatever I was doing. This time I am aware I’d been stepping over the jug for a week, so turn around to get it. Then on to the recycling room with items for the plastic and newspaper bins.

What struck me in this case was the clarity and brevity of the choice. And expecting myself to make a quick decision. And the actual decision to go back for the jug, which is not typical of me. Which all took place in less than a second. There I was, heading to the recycling room, and there I was, conscious of where I was going, and why, and that I was leaving something behind that I had not thought of sooner. The decision point was now, at this stage of this stride. I am seldom aware of motor involvement in consciousness, but here it was, my physical progress down the hall being of the essence.

Increasingly, I am aware of the fleeting nature of the mental processing I call consciousness. Things pop in and out of my mind, and I have the option of tending to them or not. Often, I am preoccupied and tell myself I don’t have time for such distractions. Often, too, they never recur. I had to have been there to decide in that split second. A one-time life opportunity—to be dismissed just like that. Yet that seems to be how my mind works. It proposes, leaving me to follow through—or not—as I choose.

That’s how it is with blog ideas, which flit through my skull like chain lightning. If I don’t seize upon them, they’re gone in a twinkling. Leaving me asking, “What was that?” If I wait even an instant, I can’t recapture one gleam of my brilliant idea. Once in a while, I recognize that I’ve had such a twinkling before. But more often it’s a one-time event. Imagine that—here for an instant, then gone forever! Another lost opportunity. How cruel consciousness can be. To flash an idea, then whip it away. But that’s me blaming my own mind for my stodginess in responding. For me not taking the hint. For not turning the hint into an inkling into a full-fledged idea. For not sitting at my computer and posting to my blog. What a waste of a mind. With me being the wastrel.

The particular incident of going to the recycling room makes me feel that this self I am talking about and who makes decisions in such cases—this particular self is in charge of acting upon the tantalizing smattering of ideas that flit through his mind. I’m talking about me, the planner, the decider, the executor of motor programs leading to actions in the world. I am my physical body and all the muscles, tendons, neurons, bones, joints, and so on that make it work—that is, move about meaningfully, perform gestures, and generally act with intention.

Intention, that is, reflecting the biological values that inform my behavior. In going to the recycling room, I experience three different aspects of consciousness: 1) intentional motor behavior of striding down the hall with papers in hand, 2) the value of doing so in order to reduce the clutter in my apartment, and 3) consciousness itself which keeps offering suggestions on how I might express my values as actions in real-life situations. At the heart of this troika is me, the decider, who changes his plans in the instant and actually goes back for the milk jug.

Trifling, you say? Mountain out of a mole hill? I think not. I am beginning to see that consciousness is far more fine-grained than I have treated it up till now. It is a pulsing mosaic of momentary urges and considerations, seemingly continuous, yet actually resetting itself as situations change and develop. Perhaps William James’ “stream” of consciousness is more intermittent and fleeting than the image conveys. It seems to be continuously up-dated and revised to take progress and obstacles into account, but that updating may well be opportunistic at distinct decision points, so allowing seams between stages as corresponding action programs progress. I don’t really know; I’m fishing here, following a hunch.

What I do know is what happened just now on my third stride toward the recycling room. In a fraction of a second, I changed my behavior because my mind fleetingly offered an alternative plan. Late breaking news! Stop the press! My apartment is less cluttered than it would have been had that spark of mental lightning not struck as it did. Consciousness, I will say now, is given us to actualize our biological and cultural values—to translate our values into action within specific situations as we would have them develop.

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