492. We Engage or We Die

April 24, 2015

My claim in this series of posts is that consciousness is not fully contained within the brain, but is a distributive property achieved by an organism’s collaborative engagement with its planetary environment.

Take the brain out of its normal range of ambient stimulation, as in solitary confinement or other forms of sensory deprivation, and consciousness suffers a morbid decline. In a depleted environment, consciousness develops to a lesser degree.

Those who survive in depleted sensory environments learn to engage with ants and spiders crawling in the corners, or to fall back on the store of memories they bring with them, building upon them by planning what they will do when they get out.

An Sang Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, suffered fifteen years of reduced engagement under house arrest; Nelson Mandela survived twenty-seven years of confinement in three different prisons, actively pounding rock into gravel during the day, later playing football, gardening, reading, studying for his law degree.

No matter what conditions we live under, we find ways to engage—or we die. The other night I was falling asleep and became aware I could not lift my head or move my body. Yet my mind was dimly active. I distinctly remember my last, fading thought, “Friends, I feel I am slipping away,” that is, dying. That’s what death is: a state of non-engagement, forever. Not just unconsciousness, but utter oblivion.

Engagement brings us to life. It is precisely what it means to be alive. To be both perceptive and active, with judgment thrown in between them, if we’re lucky.

We engage to build models of our situations in the outside world by analyzing the patterns of ambient stimulation delivered by our sensory receptors. That is, by finding meaning in those patterns, gauging our options, then judging which option is best as a guide to making an appropriate response.

The problem being that the inner realms our minds create on the inside are never accurate models of the world we inhabit on the outside. Our attention is highly selective, so we can only take in ambient patterns in fragmentary form. Our inner models are made of bits and pieces, dribs and drabs, not replicas of the world.

So we do a lot of guessing, estimating, and interpolating in trying to piece together the world puzzle, the big picture of what’s going on that is likely to affect us. Our sensory abilities may be amazing, but the world is always more complex than we can imagine. We must commit ourselves to a lifetime of continuous engagement or we’ll never keep up.

As babies, we are in way over our heads, so require nurturing care from others on a twenty-four-seven basis. That is called parenthood. But if our significant others stick with us, our situation gradually improves, and eventually we learn to stand on our own by backing our engagements with commitment, concentration, and dedicated campaigns of perception-judgment-action for ourselves. We stumble around a lot at first, but slowly straighten up and set our sights on far horizons.

Life is a matter of matching our inner possibilities to the possibilities offered by the world. Consciousness, together with loops of engagement, are our most basic tools for accomplishing that feat. All of which is made possible jointly by our minds, brains, and worlds working together.

That is my crucial point in this blog. We can’t do it by ourselves—survive, that is. Our success is a collaborative effort between mind, brain, and planet. It takes a planet to evolve a brain, and a brain to evolve a mind. In the brief window of life available to us, we are beneficiaries of all three. If, that is, they truly engage in mutual interaction from one moment to the next, one situation to the next. Encouraging us to evolve throughout our lives, infant to senior, getting better day-by-day at whatever it is we are doing with our fleeting gift of life.

As I pointed out in the dissertation quotes I bulleted in post 488, “I Am Not Making This Up,” the nuts and bolts of engagement are made possible by the workings of the limbic system as a finely-tuned comparison between perception and memory, between the present state of the hippocampus as compared to a coded remnant of earlier experience. That comparison is at the heart of our loops of engagement.

If that comparison between present and past results in a disparity, then consciousness springs into action to get a more detailed picture of the situation through further exploration. That’s what trial and error is all about, figuring out a way to get a better fix on what’s going on in order to make a better, more appropriate response. All solutions are pending, not certain.

That’s what learning and education and experience are all about. Our growth and survival depend on doing better under highly variable conditions. There’s no way ahead but to take the plunge, make a mistake, and try again. And again. And again.

I’ve got one more post to go before ending this discussion. Then it’s on to my final conclusions, and wrapping up this blog as a whole.

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Following perception, the next stage of our mental engagement is to put the resulting understanding in the context of our current situation so that a judgment of its meaning or place in our scheme of things prepares us to frame an appropriate response.

The agent performing that judgment in the presence of affect or emotion is what I call the self or situated intelligence at the core of the mind where it serves as mediator between perception and action. The self is the intelligent agent having access to memory, perception, understanding, emotion, and biological values, together with the life force as the metabolic fuel driving us to act on our own behalf in a particular situation.

How the self resolves the various motivations feeding into it by comparing, weighing, and judging their influence is what we call free will.  It is “free” in the sense that each person judges the relative importance of the various motivating forces in the light of her personal experience, the residuum of her having lived this far in her life and earned the right (if not the obligation) to be the person she is.

Free will is nothing else than the gift of learning through experience that evolution equips us with as we face into the situations we encounter, and decide how to respond in light of the teachings of our personal life story.

There is no blanket formula for survival we can all call upon such as insects’ reliance on a small set of pre-programmed instincts; we are under our own recognizance, and have the privilege to decide for ourselves what to do, including calling on the judgment of others when we need their help.

What we call belief is a conceptual summation of the internal forces of motivation which drive us to construe a given situation one way or another. The irony of the situated self is that living within the confines of its particular intelligence in its figurative black box as uniquely suspended between input and output (perception and action), as each of us does, our primary motivators together make up the situation that we occupy at any particular time, so that our operative reality, experienced uniquely by each of us, is a matter of subjective belief.

That is, we construct the situations we find ourselves in from the inherent mental forces that motivate us at the time, and those forces—memory, understanding, imagination, thought, values, emotions, energy level, among many others—are weighed against one another in forming a judgment upon how best to resolve the tension between perception and action in a manner appropriate to that subjective situation.

The world we claim to live in is a high-level abstraction, a concoction of our unique intelligence in its internally-structured situation.

Our subjective reality results from the categorization (interpretation) of impressions as projected upon the energy field that surrounds us, and as such, is subject to a construct or construal for which each of us is wholly responsible.

The world lives in us as much as we live in the world. And that world is largely a matter of subjective, affect-driven belief, not demonstrable fact.

 

Reflection 150: The Big IF

October 9, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Our outlooks on the world are governed by networks of electrochemical connections in our brains, in turn governed by the unique biochemical circumstances in which those networks were formed during earliest infancy and childhood, as well as by changes in neural connectivity resulting from subsequent life experience.

Our outlooks on the world determine our expectations. Our expectations determine how we extend ourselves into the world through personal behavior, which in turn determines how we receive world gestures into ourselves as episodes of meaningful experience.

How we take the world into ourselves influences our next round of behavior, which sets us up for the next cycle of feedback to be interpreted in light of our outlook.

Round and round we go on the continuous ride of expectancy and fulfillment in a looping engagement with a world we cannot know in itself but interpret nonetheless from our unique point of view within whatever situation we construe as our current reality.

Our ongoing loop of engagement with the world is none other than our personal life. Which is unlike any other life because our innermost electrochemical connectivity and our experience are unique to ourselves. So, too, are the values by which we guide our adaptation to what we take to be the outside world as an expression of our will to survive. Our minds are our unique, personal minds, our acts are our acts, our interpretations are our interpretations, our adaptation is our adaptation, our survival is our survival, our life is our life.

But that’s only the beginning. Imagine all the relationships each unique person has with those around her—including family, friends, society, pets, wildlife, vegetation, landscapes, habitats, institutions, governments, cultures—all those loops reaching out from each person into his surrounding milieu, generating occasions for feedback, interpretation, and subsequent responses through actions, gestures, utterances, and so on.

Considering the complexity of our ongoing interactions, engagements, interrelationships—all different, all changing—we can appreciate the challenge of even the simplest human life we can imagine—that, say, of the infant, or the hermit in his mountain retreat. Add the necessity of keeping track of it all though learning and memory (and blessed forgetfulness of trivial details) so that our experience is more-or-less cumulative and orderly, it is a wonder each of us isn’t overwhelmed by the relentless flux of events in our personal worlds of  consciousness.

If in fact we are created equal, it is as equal experiments in the universe. Where many will adapt to the occasions of their lives and muddle through, others will succumb. Day after day, the issue is personal survival. If our respective sets of unique characteristics are a match for the conditions in which we strive, and our minds and bodies are up to the challenge, we will live another day. That is the big IF in whose shadow we awaken each day, and surrender to mock oblivion later on.

It is not that I am pitting my values and uniqueness against yours for the privilege of making it through till tomorrow. Living in the shadow of the big IF is the lot we share in common with humanity and all life. But it is not surprising that within that one lot, differences are inevitable. Those differences are part of the plan in setting us up for the ultimate test of survival. Those who are most adapted to their life circumstances will go on, while others stumble, and eventually collapse. That’s what it means to exist as one of Earth’s children.

But when one group or class takes advantage of another, using it to boost its own comfort and chances of survival—then campfires and bombardments will light the night sky in answer to such skullduggery. 

Human history is written in blood spilled by one group rising against another in response to unjust oppression for the sake of stealing a survival advantage. Every chapter tells of farmers standing against ranked troops, archers or rock throwers against those with guns who have invaded their land, suicide bombers killing as many innocents as possible, slaves against masters, workers against bosses, subjects against armies of kings and emperors, those out of power against those in power, and on and on. Power, ultimately, bestows a survival advantage upon those who possess it, depriving the powerless to an equal degree.

Consciousness matters because it is the gauge of our equality under the circumstances that prevail in our current social situation. We can tell our relative station in life by how others treat us. If we feel put upon, neglected, abused, under-represented, or generally at a disadvantage compared to others in our social realm, we will act according to our degree of disaffection. Nowhere is it written that one class should stride upon the bodies of its underlings. Nor is it decreed that the socially underprivileged must bow to their self-styled betters as exemplars of a more noble form of humanity.

Uniqueness is uniqueness; humanity is humanity. Each of us has an inherent right to equal treatment and respect. It is not up to us to impress others into serving our personal values and goals. If all do not stand for one, and one does not stand for all, we risk  elevating ourselves as higher beings more fit than the rest. Yet we are born to die—as everyone is—mortals first-to-last. If our uniqueness is to receive its due, it is as a proclamation that our respective gifts have equal worth as agents of survival in the universal experiment that is humanity. We do not know where the next great advance will arise—in what climate, habitat, nation, genome, or stream of consciousness.

We cannot see beyond the shadow of the big IF that falls equally upon us. Therefore it is not for us to weigh the value of others’ gifts. We can only manage our consciousness to make our unique selves happen as best we can under the circumstances that befall us—and insist on everyone’s right to do the same.

In this light, personal consciousness is not primarily a means for advancing ourselves beyond others, but rather a means of striving for sufficiency while recognizing we are in this life together and deserve equal chance to make ourselves happen—not as higher and lower beings, but as uniquely gifted members of our common humanity. Each of us is but one biochemical wonder among many with diverse outlooks and expectations, all with equal hopes of fulfillment in adapting to the world shadow that falls across us for the duration of our lives.

Martin Luther King Jr.

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

In Reflection 65 (I’ve Got Mine, February 18, 2009), I wrote of conflict as arising from competing needs “to have and control the resources required to survive at a desirable level.” Possession and control of resources is what we generally mean by “wealth.” Wealth comes in three basic forms. 1) Earth resources ranging from food and water to goods and real property; 2) human resources such as skilled labor, healthcare, and, ultimately, life itself; and 3) financial resources sufficient to obtain resources of the first two types. In brief, wealth comes down to possession and/or control of land, labor, and money.

 

Because survival depends on such wealth, a major portion of human consciousness is devoted to these three issues. The Haves have them in sufficient amounts, the Have-nots want more. Money isn’t really a survival resource in its own right, it is a means of obtaining such resources. The basics of survival, then, come down to two types of resources: tangible resources derived from land on planet Earth, and life which endures over time. World enough and time—that’s what survival at a desirable level comes down to. That is our wealth.

 

As a resource, land provides the essentials—food, water, energy, minerals, and place with enough room to move around in. As a resource, life is essential to the procurement and enjoyment of those material resources. If you have little property but live a long life, you can count yourself wealthy. On the other hand, if you have vast stores of goods—but live only for one day—you rank with the poorest of the poor. As resources, land and life are both essential components of personal wealth, which is found by multiplying your property times your lifespan, producing the wealth equation:

 

Land x Life = Wealth, or simply L1 • L2 = W

 

where L1 is in units of area (the size of your Earthly footprint) and L2 is in units of time (your lifespan in years). Wealth, then is in acre-years (or the metric equivalent).

 

Consciousness, of course, is an aspect of life, so is a vital resource in and of itself. Which elevates human consciousness to a survival necessity. Something you’d never suspect, given the ease with which we project our beliefs onto the world rather than strive to understand it, or drink and drug ourselves into warped states of awareness unto oblivion. This adds additional terms to the wealth equation to account for being bullheaded or messing up:

 

L1 • L2 = W – (BH + MU)

 

That is, each of us is accountable for the stewardship we exercise over our property and our lives. Mahatma Gandhi is off the scale upwards, Bernie Madoff doesn’t even register. Stewardship is where consciousness comes into the picture of personal wealth. Measuring personal or corporate wealth in dollars doesn’t even begin to tell the true story. Lack of conscious stewardship devalues the gross total, often severely. Usury? Forget it. Ill-gotten gains? Uh-uh. Tax avoidance? Go back to Go.

 

Think how much time and effort we put into balancing checkbooks, figuring taxes, looking for jobs, earning money, saving, spending, borrowing, worrying, fighting—all for the sake of surviving at our preferred level of wealth. While ignoring the footprint we are stomping into the Earth, as well as the waste and consumption we are inflicting for the full duration of our lives. In the U.S., most of us end up in the poorhouse, indebted to our planet, which has put up with our abuse for so long without complaint. That indebtedness is our true legacy. Maybe we did manage to get the kids through college, but then condemned them to a life of servitude on the very same planet we did our best to deplete. As I wrote in Reflection 65:

 

As things now stand, there are more humans on the planet than it can provide for, all wishing to be upwardly mobile, to have more than their neighbors. Conflict is inherent in this situation. Conflict without any satisfactory resolution, without any end. As long as some people can cry, “I’ve got mine!” while others go landless, naked, or hungry, the survivors are living at the expense of the destitute.

 

The sum total of our collective pursuit of wealth is told by global warming, peak oil, and the current financial crisis that is so extensive and so devastating that no one can think what to call it. For now, it is the crisis so shameful that it has no name. We have been living—and continue to live—at the expense of the Earth and all its creatures. We have become agents of global depletion, degradation, and destruction. Entropy, thy name is humanity.

 

Well, folks, here we are. The crisis is not out there somewhere, not on Wall Street—it is in here, inside our own consciousness, so-called. Which, much to our surprise, is now bankrupt. Our lack of stewardship over our personal consciousness has gotten us to this point. We could have seen the crash coming, but chose not to. We averted our gaze out of politeness so not to make waves.

 

What do we do now? Leave it to Obama? The only viable solution is to rock the ship of state by making the biggest waves we can to dump the sleeping passengers out of their beds onto the floor. Each one is then in charge of picking himself up, opening her eyes, and becoming fully conscious of the need for stewardship in living every aspect of life from now on. Not stewardship as an afterthought but stewardship at the core.

 

If we can do that, we may be able to restore the wealth equation to a state of balance in our case. But if we keep on being bullheaded or messing up, our personal portion of the crisis will spiral downward. I have written earlier on in this blog of various failures of consciousness. Well, our take on today’s world is what they look like. And feel like. The study of consciousness is not academic; it has profound implications for humanity and its living Earth. To save ourselves, we must first know who it is we are trying to save. As the Oracle at Delphi advised, that journey starts with an inward turn.

 

Take full responsibility for every action; look inward; act outwardly. Not later. Now!

 

¦

 

(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.

 

¦

 

(Copyright © 2008)

In this blog I have presented consciousness as a means of assessing novel situations so to derive and execute appropriate courses of action. Which sounds all very judicious and reasonable. But consciousness has its dark side. What can we make of the human mind when it perpetrates vicious acts inflicting excruciating pain and suffering—and even death—on other beings?

 

When I went through basic training at Fort Ord in 1955, I was taught to kill with pistol, rifle, and bayonet. I remember the infiltration course, Sarge leaning against a framework of beams holding a straw dummy suspended spider-like in its web, him shouting “Kill, kill, kill!” as I met the dummy, me thrusting bayonet into straw, so tired I could barely gasp a weak echo, “khill.” I was a mock killer.

 

But there are real killers in the world. As conscious and aroused as they are cruel. And fully conscious victims of atrocities, often women and children. And fully conscious indirect victims (it is safer to kill a wife than her husband, the intended victim, who gets off being humiliated). And fully conscious witnesses. And, drink in hand, fully conscious watchers of the news seated in comfortable living rooms on the far side of the world.

 

Here, too, is the human mind making sense of real life situations.

 

Journalist Ann Jones has a devastating piece on pages 16-20 in The Nation (Dec. 29, 2008): “A Crime Against Society: Rape destroyed the social fabric of Congo. Now women are beginning to repair it.” The gist is that women are trying to put social life in eastern Congo back together again. But the heart of the article is her depiction of the atrocities that Congolese women have suffered—and are still suffering:

 

Men singly or in gangs rape women and girls of all ages. (Recorded victims range in age from 2 months to 83 years.) Men also cut off women’s nipples or breasts, mutilate or cut off external genitalia, and eviscerate living pregnant women to remove and kill fetuses. After rape, men commonly insert foreign objects into the vagina: sticks, sand, rocks, knives, burning wood or charcoal, or molten plastic made by melting shopping bags. Killing the rape victim by firing a handgun or rifle inserted in the vagina is a common practice; some victims have survived. Rapists have blinded many women, apparently to prevent identification, and left countless others to die in the forest after chopping off their arms and/or legs. Soldiers also abduct women, and especially girls as young as 10 or 11, as captive “wives.”

 

Reading these words, I cannot imagine the women and girls’ suffering, but I can feel sympathy for the victims. I am stunned. Shocked that such things can happen. This is beyond truth and reconciliation. My urge is to round up the soldiers, cut off their penises, and leave them to die. Beyond that, I try to put myself in the killers’ place. What would drive me to perform such violent acts of deliberate cruelty? Who are these men, and how can they find such behavior appropriate? Ann Jones suggests a few answers in her article, but none of them justify the acts she depicts.

 

Then I remember crimes against humanity committed in other locations on other occasions. The Holocaust. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Darfur. Pearl Harbor. Incendiary bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, London. Assaults on Native Peoples everywhere. Napalm and agent orange in Vietnam. Mai Lai. Civilian deaths in the current Iraq War. Israeli bombings of Palestinians in Gaza.

 

Such horrors as Ann Jones relates are not limited to eastern Congo. Every one of us can be trained or driven to commit atrocities. And when questioned afterwards, we justify our actions because we feel we had ample reason to do what we did under mitigating circumstances. Consciousness always makes sense to itself. We did it because. . . (select your rationale of choice).

 

Those of us alive today are the survivors of atrocities. Born to survivors, who were born to earlier and earlier survivors, back to the beginning. Consciousness has been with us the whole way. Consciousness of drought, flood, famine, disease, war, cruelty of others, our own cruelty.

 

Does that excuse us, or make us a better, tougher, or more deserving class of people? Are we one bit nobler or more moral than the soldiers of Congo? As far as consciousness goes, is morality even relevant? Is the precious cargo of our genes the only thing that counts?

 

In Congo, countless women died horrible deaths. And even if they survived brutalization, part of them is dead. If soldiers are the victors, what kind of world—what kind of consciousness—have they won for themselves? As survivors, what kind of consciousness have we won for ourselves? If one eats while another starves, what kind of world is that? If one “earns” billions by victimizing others while billions scrape by, what kind of world?

 

We know what kind of world because we wake up to it every day. Consciousness has much to account for; it is no justification in itself for simply surviving. It comes at great price. Our assignment, should we chose to accept it, is to honor the suffering that got us where we are and sustains us today.

 

How honor suffering? By being aware of it, remembering it, and conducting ourselves accordingly. By doing our best by all concerned, which is everyone. Women as well as men. Children as well as adults. Aborigines as well as settlers. Workers as well as management. Strangers as well as friends.

 

Here it is a new year. In 2009, let us be fully conscious of those who suffer and die for us, that we may live the bravest we can on their behalf.

 

¦

 

(Copyright © 2008)

In 1865, Herbert Spencer glossed Darwin’s “natural selection” as “survival of the fittest,” a phrase still ringing in our ears as self-evident truth. But if the fittest are to survive, what are they fittest to? Easy, we say, their surroundings. The natural environment. And in our human case its step-child, the cultural environment. Which raises hard questions: How are the fittest to gauge their fitness to surroundings they can only dimly entertain? Are we talking personal fitness, species fitness, genetic fitness? Is fitness a quality of life or a statistical abstraction after-the-fact?

 

From my point of view the issue is: What can consciousness tell us about the circumstances on which survival depends? I can’t know my surroundings directly because any act of perception changes everything in translating the outside world to neural terms my mind can barely understand. The natural outside world consists of trees, rivers, air, sunlight, bacteria, and their ilk; my mental apparatus consists of neurons, dendrites, axons, ions, neuro-transmitters, synapses, hormones, etc. Whatever form survival issues may take on the outside is surely lost in translation to inner awareness.

 

We idly go on believing we live in the real world, a world we can see/hear/taste/touch. We’re kidding ourselves. The whole of existence is in our personal experience, not any outer world. Life is an inside job. Coming out of a movie, we often have a sense of seeing the world for the first time. Everything is new, fresh, clear, and really strange. Movie vision takes over our seeing. But it eventually wears off. Our conventional outlook reasserts itself and everything returns to “normal.” But conventions are conventions, not reality.

 

Some people are mad about Sarah Palin because she speaks their lingo. Others see her spouting a list of talking points without substance. We fashion her image to suit ourselves. Such is consciousness. It works inside-out. The world is what we make of it. Feel of it. Dream of it. Imagine of it. More often than not, we find what we seek, not what is there. We fit the world to our preferences, prejudices, and past experiences, not vice versa. We, not the world, do the heavy selecting in deciding how we present ourselves to it.

 

Our views on Governor Palin (and others) are a reflection of who we are. Such views have little to do with any woman/mother/governor from Alaska, and say far more about us than about her. Consciousness is as consciousness does. What we get is what we give in the first place, what we look for from our point of view.

 

The street scene after the movie becomes movie-like because we project our persisting movie vision on it as if it were part of the illusory world we just sat through for two hours. Horse lovers see horses all around them. Sailors see waves, boats, and gathering storms. Expectancy is destiny. Ask any vet with PTSD. We are all experiments, broadcasting our fitness (or unfitness) for life outward in hope against hope.

 

In that way, rightly or wrongly, consciousness fits us to unanticipated life events. In novel situations, it is our primary survival tool. That’s why it has been selected for. As a guide to the unknown. Consciousness gives us the possibility of living an original life independent of reflexes, habits, and what we have been taught. It allows for judgment and imagination, equipping us to break from the herd and go our own way. As if life depended on it. Which it does.

 

What we don’t see coming is sure to get us in the end. In the meantime, proactive consciousness, if we use it wisely, gives the clearest view ahead. It puts experience, judgment, feeling, and imagination in the loop of awareness so we can do some selecting of our own and not abandon our fitness and fate entirely to our mindless genes. ¦