(Copyright © 2009)

 

In my view, we are conscious within situations and act within situations, so to change the world, we must create new situations inviting us to further the changes we want to achieve. Situations are domains in which consciousness and action are joined in an ongoing loop of feedforward and feedback. All action is tentative because we aren’t sure of the results until we experience them. We operate through successive approximations guided by feedback, approaching our goal through jumps and starts, then evaluating the results, modifying our aim, and trying again. In the end, we may achieve our goal—or not. But if we don’t make the effort, and pay close attention, we are sure to stay stuck where we are.

 

When nineteen Islamic terrorists brought down the Twin Towers with a death toll of almost three thousand, they created a situation in which the U.S. government felt the need to make a fast, bold, decisive response. The people responded variously, some wanting to learn more about Islam and the Middle East, others turning their hurt and anger into a rage for revenge. The military sent high altitude bombers against targets in Afghanistan, then set about invading Iraq. Eight years later, both wars are still going on, the missions of the two campaigns—after many revisions—still unachieved.

 

When Jews sought a homeland in Palestine in 1947-1949, they sought to gather themselves from around the world after being dispossessed for almost two thousand years, into a state of their own where they could recover their spirit and identity after the horrors of World War II—the most recent insult to their personhood. The situation of the Diaspora led to situations of ghettoization led to a situation of scapegoating and the Holocaust led to a feeling of “never again” led to a situation of banding together for protection led to invasion and reoccupation of the former homeland, and resulting war and Palestinian exodus. The hope for peaceful coexistence, prosperity, and security is yet unachieved, creating a situation in which the energies of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples are being drained day-by-day through mutual antagonism.

 

The Germans created a situation of global instability and insecurity by invading Poland in 1939. The Japanese compounded the situation by attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941. First the French, then the Americans failed to recognize the failure of Western colonialism in Southeast Asia, misreading the disintegrating situation in Vietnam in terms of the perceived spread of Communism, distorting the situation by creating yet another tragic, unwinnable war.

 

As I have written (Reflection 88: To-Do Lists, posted April 10, 2009), consolidating a variety of tasks into a single list creates a situation within which tasks can be prioritized and dealt with more easily than when treated separately. Credit card companies use a similar strategy in inviting you to consolidate your various debts with them so you’ll have only one payment to make, even if it goes on forever at a high rate of interest.

 

Getting married creates a wholly new situation by legally joining two separate lives—and bank accounts, the true complexity of the situation often underappreciated until the parties decide to separate and go their own ways.

 

Humor flows from situations that generate expectations fulfilled in unsuspected ways. Take Fred and Myrtle, for example. Married for some 65 years, they’d become fixtures on the Maine coast. Fred was a fisherman, first going out for cod and haddock in the groundfishery, then when that failed in 1993, going out for lobster. Fred knew everybody, and everybody felt they’d known Fred forever. Myrtle, meantime, picked crabmeat from crabs Fred brought home, baked her famous strawberry-rhubarb and raspberry-blueberry pies, donuts, whoopie-pies, and hung clothes on the line to dry in the breeze from offshore. But one day in his late eighties, Fred went to his reward. The editor of the local newspaper got wind of it and called Myrtle to ask her to provide an obituary. “No need for that,” said Myrtle, “everybody knows Fred. I couldn’t add a thing they don’t know.” The editor pressed her, saying he couldn’t let Fred’s passing go unnoticed. Myrtle said she’d give it a try. She sat in the kitchen and thought about it, but nothing came. Fred was a fixture, there was nothing more to be said. She sent the editor what she came up with. He called her and told her Fred deserved more than the two words she’d sent in: “Fred died,” was just too short for a man of his years. Couldn’t she stretch it out with more personal details? Myrtle said she’d try. She sat some more over two cups of coffee, then sent in her expanded obituary: “Fred died; boat for sale.”

 

Situations play our expectations against our experience in an enduring exchange that builds over time. We are gripped by the process, contributing our bit, waiting to find out what happens. The playoffs and World Series create situations of national sporting interest. Think Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl, and all the other contests we give ourselves to so we can get through the year. We devote our lives to supporting our favored teams, doing all we can to make sure that they win. The spring madness of statewide high school basketball playoffs creates situations tapping into the same energy stream.

 

I remember when clove gum was introduced in the 1940s. I was walking across the street in Hamilton, New York, and met a young blonde in a flouncy, clove-colored skirt who handed me a stick of gum as she smiled and passed by. Free gum! Such a thing had never happened to me. Manufacturers know the personal touch is a good way to get word of a new product spread around, so they hold focus groups to test the waters. I have often thought of what that woman’s day was like, spreading the word about clove gum through small towns in upstate New York, creating a firestorm in the hearts of young boys.

 

If consciousness embedded in old situations has gotten us into the mess we are in today, then what kind of situations might set us on a new course? What sort of situation would alter my personal consciousness so that I would act in my own small sphere to heal the many things we’ve been doing wrong all this time?

 

Survey the situation as it is, list pros and cons, prioritize, visualize an improved situation, then act accordingly. Groups are going through this process all over the world. Women in Nigeria protest oil exploitation by banging pots and pans in the streets. Women in Liberia go on strike and sit by the roadside for the sake of peace. Groups are urging the development of and switch to alternative sources of energy. I went to a four-hour Pachamama Alliance symposium—Awakening The Dreamer, Changing The Dream—this past Sunday, and signed the pledge: “I am committed to bringing forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on this planet as the guiding principle of our times.” Videos presented concrete images of the status quo, activists told of their strategies and accomplishments, we locals discussed how we could direct our energies toward shaping our culture by finding better ways of eating, consuming, traveling, and generally being on the Earth.

 

Traveling alone, the burden seems huge. Traveling together, we can all share the load. Combining our separate experience, consciousness, and effort, we begin to picture a new world. There is no substitute for becoming the change we seek. Others will follow our example. If nobody goes first, everybody is stuck in last place—where we don’t want to be.

 

The main thing is to join others in working together toward similar goals. Think of the new situation as a nest with new life streaming out in every direction from that energy source in our local territory. Taking in radiant energy from the sun, we can put it to more effective use in everyday life than our forebears have been able to do. The new situation is called “the future.” That’s where we’re headed. With pot bangers linked to street sitters linked to seminar goers linked to activists of every stripe in every locale linked to me linked to you, all creating a new situation that is really a new world.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Given that I see things that are not of this world (cedars as men, trash bags as dying crows, TV antennas as crashing jets, clip-art cats where there are no real cats), and do not see things that demonstrably are present in this world (jars of mustard, sunflowers in a vase), I can only conclude that much of consciousness is speculative in nature. In charting the mysterious world, the mind often models events as a distorted version of the true situation. No map can accurately present the territory; no mind reveal the world as it is.

 

Enter Michael Gazzaniga’s left-brain interpreter to explain how it is that consciousness can carry on with less than complete or reliable information. No perfectionist, it does the best it can in interpreting the evidence available to it. As always, the object is to come up with a plan of personal action suited to its best estimate of the current situation. In view of the feedback resulting from such action, the interpreter will modify its estimate and try again. Through a series of successive approximations, it develops a narrative of the stages by which it overcomes obstacles in reaching its final goal of appropriate action.

 

On the grandest scale, this narrative becomes an account of the hero/heroine’s journey through the Valley of Trials to the ultimate victory against evil, and his/her triumphant return. On a lesser scale, it answers such prosaic questions as, “How did work go today, Honey? or “What did you do in school?” In any case, the narrative consists of the emotionally-charged high points of consciousness attempting to make sense of its world through a series of challenges laid out in the dimensions of personal time and personal space.

 

Even Einstein’s space-time continuum is a tale told by his left-brain interpreter grappling with his placement in two worlds at once: the universe of his creative consciousness attempting to model its situation in personal-organic-conceptual terms of time and space, and the details of a calibrated physical universe it infers to lie beyond itself. From my perspective, Einstein projected his mental calibration from one setting to the other, confounding his personal situation with a mysterious surround which knows only change but nothing of time and nothing of space.

 

Conduct the following thought experiment: Units of measurement are creations of the human mind referenced to arbitrary standards. Before humans evolved, and after they become extinct, can time (referred to any standard at all) be said to exist? Can space (referred to any standard at all) be said to exist?

My own conclusion is that absent consciousness, variables such as duration, distance, and change persist in an uncalibrated state as usual, but the artifacts of measurable time and space become irrelevant and inapplicable. That is, along with beauty, music, color, number and other indicators of mental relationships, both time and space exist as we know them solely in the mind of the conscious interpreter, exactly where thought experiments reside.

 

Workings of the human mind encompass a great many operations, including attending, feeling, perceiving, conceiving, remembering, relating, planning, expecting, understanding, inducing, deducing, inferring, supposing, extrapolating, interpolating, comparing, categorizing, prioritizing, speaking, listening, speculating, imagining, and so on. Twenty-four/seven, this mind of ours is a very busy place. One thing it can’t do, however, is provide a clear perspective on any so-called real world. In every instance, the best it can do is speculate about such a world on the basis of insufficient evidence.

 

What consciousness does best is play games because games have a limited number of rules, and the human mind thrives in situations characterized by clarity and order. If there are too many rules, we forget them and get confused; if too few, we get bored. The moves in chess are about right. The ten commandments verge on too many. Solitaire has too few to sustain attention for long. Drawing cards from a shuffled deck (as in Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, or almost any card game) keeps down the number of details to be held in mind while, at the same time, enlivening play. Games of chance are engaging because, if the possibilities are large, the actualities are few and very clear. You either win or lose.

 

Born speculators, whatever the game, we always play to win, which says a lot about consciousness. It’s as if the point of consciousness were to play games. Which, given the vagaries of our left-brain interpreter, it usually is. We are risk takers, inhabiting the gap between the possible and the probable. Life is boring if we always bet on a sure thing. Gaming is in our nature. Gaming the market, gaming the environment, gaming relationships—all for what we can get out of them (hopefully, without losing our shirts).

 

Even science involves hypotheses which may not pan out. Doubt and uncertainty are the backbone that gives science its character through disciplined speculation. There’s never enough evidence to be absolutely sure of anything. There’s no such thing as 100% certainty.

 

Including human judgment, which is intimately involved in gauging the imaginativeness of the left-brain interpreter. Truth or fiction? When the evidence is skimpy, it’s hard to tell. But we have to do something to avoid being seen as wimps, so barge ahead on what little we know. If we win, we are likely to win big. If we lose, well, that’s why we hedge our bets.

 

We often live as if life were a multiple choice test. My advice is always go for the longest, most detailed answer. The others are probably fillers to pad out the options. At least that’s what I speculate.

 

We live in the tension between getting it right and getting it wrong. Thank you, Judgment, Interpreter, and Imagination for the rollercoaster ride.

 

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(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.

 

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