(Copyright © 2010)

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

        T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Little Gidding, part 5

Is there no forward motion, then? Only the same round  again and again? Must I travel in circles? By different routes, I keep coming back to the same thing. Winding down this blog, I am not far from the mental state I was in twenty-eight years ago. I find myself making similar discoveries, or perhaps rehashing the same intuitions in different terms. What I then called “a resonant synthesis of meaning and being,” I now refer to as “the categorization of sensory patterns.”  Unhappy with either phrase because not expressed in plain English, I wonder if it has been worth it—trying to get a grip on the inner workings of my own mind. Am I in any better position to understand—so to remedy—the problems of my time? Or am I on a fool’s errand?

Words, being a social medium, impose the history of their use on the choice of any particular word to express a private thought. I despise the word categorization as sounding so pretentious, so academic, so foreign, so Greek. It is not a word I would normally use, but these days I use it in almost every post, as if repetition would somehow make it more acceptable. I think of it as Aristotle’s word, or Immanuel Kant’s. It doesn’t feel like my word. I have failed to come up with a better word for describing a big part of my personal consciousness.

To categorize is to describe the world in terms that are personally meaningful. That’s why I use it—it says what I mean. But it doesn’t sound like me in my own ears. So I cringe every time I ask my fingers to type that dread sequence of letters. The interesting thing, though, is what kategorein means in Greek—to publically accuse or assert (kata- down, egor- to speak in public). We use it in the sense (via Latin) of to declare or proclaim, that is, to state the nature or character of a person, thing, or event. To categorize something is to make public a claim it is as I see it. Categorization, then, is the outward expression of a mental notion, of a concept or an idea.

How else could I say that to be less formal or academic? The word mapping sounds more friendly to me. Categorization is the mapping of a concept from consciousness onto something in our phenomenal world. It is the categorizer who does the mapping, so responsibility for what he does is solely his. Naming is another friendly term for what we do when we categorize. One problem with names, however, is we often think of them as properties of persons or objects themselves, not as labels or designations applied by others. As if a spade (object) were strictly a spade (name) and not a shovel, digging implement, or trowel. What’s in a name? I find I am bothered by mail addressed to Steven Perrin instead of to Steve or Stephen Perrin. It’s an easy mistake, and there is no way to know if Steve is short for Steven or Stephen. What troubles me is that, without thinking, people lay their assumptions on how I spell my own name, which I take as a slight. Sensitive? You bet! But there it is. Names matter. Categorizations matter.

Historically, they have changed over time as Latin replaced Greek as an international language, then evolved into French, which merged with Anglo-Saxon into Old English, then became modern English. With the result that we forget what terms once meant, and bring in new terms of our own, replacing simple old names with verbal concoctions. In Words and Places (Everyman’s Library, originally published 1864), Isaac Taylor gives examples of concatenated place names made up of bits and pieces contributed by different cultures:

In the name of Brindon Hill, in Somersetshire, we have first the Cymric bryn, a hill. To this was added dun, a Saxonised Celtic word, nearly synonymous with bryn; and the English word hill was added when neither bryn nor dun were any longer significant words.

Pen-dle-hill, in Lancashire, is similarly compounded of three synonymous words—the Cymric pen, the Norse holl, and the English hill. In Pen-tlow Hill, in Essex, we have the Celtic pen, the Anglo-Saxon hlaw, and the English hill. Shar-pen-hoe-knoll, in Bedfordshire, contains four nearly synonymous elements.

Why use four syllables when the meaning of each is the same, and one of them would do? These terms are monuments to human forgetfulness, reminding us that categorizations are projections of the human mind, not labels of things as what they are in themselves.

Name-calling is a clear example of characterization conveying an attitude: you turkey, you imbecile, you darling, you angel, you pig. It is a very different act to apply the name pig to a pig or a person. But thinking about it, a pig isn’t a pig on its own; it takes a person to dub a pig a pig, cochon, Schwein, cerdo, or maiale, depending on whether that person speaks English, French, German, Spanish, or Italian. The pigness of a pig is clearly in the ear of the categorizer.

Once we get beyond the standoffish (to us) quality of foreign words, the idea of categorization (recognition, mapping, naming) is clear enough. After casting our concepts outward, the hard part is accepting that the world as we perceive it is a phenomenal version of the world, a rendition by our sensory apparatus, different for each one of us, depending on our motivation at the time, our interest, arousal, attention, level of discrimination, and other aspects of consciousness. The world in itself is other than we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, or intuit. Imagine the world of a bird that can detect Earth’s magnetic field with sensors in its eyes; imagine the world of a shark, skate, or ray that can read electrical signals sent out by the nervous system of prey species buried in sand, gravel, or mud. Like ants, moles, worms, and bumblebees, such species, too, would claim to see the world “as it is,” but theirs would be a very different world from the one we claim to know.

Within our own species, individuals see the world differently. For example, here is something I read this morning in Harper’s Magazine of Jan. 2010, from a piece by Charles Bowden,  “The Wisdom of Rats”:

Laws are passed, uniforms designed, theories float like butterflies over the mountains and valleys and deserts. Things are Mexican or things are American or people are settlers or pioneers or savages or aliens, men are outlaws or lawmen, boundaries are violated or secured, armies sweep through, order is insisted upon, revolutions come and go and succeed or fail and it is all under control at all times whether there is control or not.

Different observers, different worlds, that is the law of consciousness. Not that there’s nothing “out there,” it’s that each of us renders it to suit himself in the moment. If I am hungry, I notice food; if I am wet, I look for shelter; if I am cold, I seek warmth; if I am lonely, I wish for company; if I am frazzled, I retire into solitude. Narrowing the search, we find what we look for, but that’s only the beginning. Our personal worlds are functions of our size, sensory acuteness, ability to discriminate one thing from another, prior experience, genetic makeup, chemical environment in the womb, childhood development, rearing, schooling, training, job history, higher education, and on and on. The one world may be out there, but the phenomenal worlds we entertain in consciousness are different for each individual. Consequently, we respond in different ways to those phenomenal worlds, so behave as uniquely ourselves.

There is no known standard for any so-called objective world. We do not perceive material objects directly as they “are,” but construe them from the energy they emit, reflect, block, or diffract (as voyagers in the Pacific could navigate in relation to wave fronts in the lee of an island they could not see). Kicking an object (such as a tire on a used car or a cardboard box at the side of the road) is as good a way as any to check on the solidity of an object, but it says little about what that object might be.

In earlier posts I have mentioned apparent motions of sun, moon, planets, and stars, apparent colors, apparent sounds (such as speech or music)—none of which is the same in the world of objects as it appears in phenomenal consciousness. Things seem to grow smaller as they move away from us, and we accept that illusion as natural, even though we know that a locomotive does not actually grow in size as it approaches or smaller as it passes us by. Looking down from the upper floors of a tall building, we remark how small people on the street are, even though we know that on their level they are probably of average size.

People categorize their phenomenal worlds in order to act more-or-less appropriately in situations they can construe but cannot directly engage beyond consciousness. Consciousness, that is, enables an ongoing loop of engagement between  individual actors and their surroundings by which specific gestures are traded for sensory input, followed by a series of adjusted gestures and revised inputs, mediated by personal judgments, values, goals, and prior experience. In two sentences, that is the gist of the 199 posts to this blog. We the people are motivated categorizers of sensory impressions. The worlds we live in are parallel universes rendered by our brains in creating personal consciousness.

Which may be true for individuals (personal consciousness being the topic of this blog), but what about the collective consciousness of people acting in groups? After 199 posts, that is the new beginning I am faced with, the flip side of individual consciousness that can be known through introspection. Corporate personhood and the “right” to bear arms are two examples of beliefs held in common by groups made up of disparate individuals. Beliefs may be hatched in individual consciousness, but as items on a group’s agenda, they become aggrandized as issues, principles, rights, or policies, and so become larger than notions, concepts, or ideas in individual minds. Trying to grasp individual consciousness is daunting enough, but collective or corporate consciousness adds layer-upon-layer of difficulty on top of that. The issue then becomes the mental underpinnings of behavior exhibited by people acting in groups, not the relatively simpler matter of individual consciousness in relation to one person’s independent acts.

Mixing levels of consciousness, seen from my personal point of view, corporate personhood becomes an out-and-out oxymoron. For corporations to be considered persons, they would have to have brains and some semblance of consciousness. But corporations are entities chartered by the various states, not living beings. Though they may have members and employees who have brains and are conscious for themselves, corporations as such are demonstrably both brainless and mindless. Ask a corporation to categorize some aspect of its world and it will refer the job to an attorney who does have both a brain and a mind; the corporation as an entity chartered on paper is not up to the task.

Yet corporations exist and are considered legal persons under the law, allowing a group of people to act within certain specified limits as a corporate individual. This legal fiction confounds true and make-believe entities, magically bestowing rights and qualities of living persons upon chartered bodies (orchestras, alliances, unions, partnerships, companies, corporations) as if they were mortal beings and not so many origami tigers without wits or judgment. But, looking around, I see many similar fictions alive and well in the culture I live in. There is a trend in corporate thinking to allow for convenient fictions that fail any test of reality beyond the fact that it pleases us to act as if we believed in them. I have written in this blog about The Wizard of Oz, who is as real to me as Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, or Isaac Newton.

Does it matter that we have a hard time differentiating fiction from truth? Considering the wealth concentrated in modern multinational corporations, and the legal expertise in their employ, yes, it becomes a serious question because of the influence and leverage such impersonal entities wield in the affairs of natural persons. Corporate persons have vastly greater powers to control the media, lobby Congress, sway the Supreme Court, and determine election results than ordinary citizens do. Corporate personhood mocks the principle of one person, one vote, which underlies our democratic form of government. Does that matter? Is pitting corporate versus individual resources likely to lead to a fair contest? Is democracy itself just a myth?

No slope is slipperier than corporate personhood because the combination of corporate policy, expertise, and funding trumps hard-won, mere-mortal judgments every time. We the people are disheartened: the courts have stolen our nation out from under us. The struggle for independence never ends.

Miscategorizing a corporation as a person is contrary to any system of law that claims to be reasoned and compassionate. If corporations can play at being persons, why not dogs and cats? Pigeons? Rats? Which brings me back to Charles Bowden’s piece in Harper’s:

The rats came out in the night and moved right here where I sit, a continuous thread of rats reaching far back with love and anger and lust and dreams and reaching past any place my world will ever attain, and the rats know but will not say what they know and so we must find out, experience the fantasy of power and control, and finally we will go under like every one of our kind they have ever seen and still they will come out in the night and move around, not making a sound, not a single sound, but move around and thrive as the creek purls along in the black love of the night. We must not play it safe if we wish to share the wisdom of the rats.

Our idea of history is the end of history, of tracking a concentration of power that finally reaches critical mass, and by an explosion of force solves all problems and ends all change forever, amen.

No rat has ever believed our history.

Categorizations such as corporate personhood are creations of what Gerald Edelman calls higher-order consciousness. Rats are endowed with primary consciousness, which deals with a phenomenal world interpreted in light, not of concepts, but of innate biological values—sex, food, drink, and more sex, food, and drink. It is not corporate personhood itself that will prove our undoing, but our helpless putting-up with it. If our higher-order consciousness allows us to categorize it as a crazy, irrational, illegal power-grab, that leaves us helpless because these are not arguments admissible in a court of law, which is where the problem lies. On a social level, courts are the deciders of which categorizations are legal and which are not. For now, while rats and judges creep among us in the dark, it’s OK for corporations to act as if they were persons, which everybody knows they are not, but if the Supreme Court rules it’s OK, then it must be OK.

Leaving me to wonder, is there any such thing as higher-order social consciousness? Have we reached the point in our evolution where that might emerge? As it is, court decisions serve the interests of those who write legislation and the judges who back them up. Corporate personhood is alive and well in our age, as is the right to bear arms, so I feel I am ahead of my time. And I don’t see higher-order social consciousness emerging anytime soon. The trend, in fact, appears to be running the other way. How long can the right to be a fully conscious, independent person last before being declared unconstitutional?

To end this post, I will return to the beginning of the rule of law in this nation, to the Preamble of the Constitution, which, in case you might have forgotten, reads as follows:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The thirty-nine signers of the Constitution in 1787 were all able-bodied categorizers and witnesses to the sensory phenomena kindled within them in their time. They had not yet surrendered the right to keep and exercise their independent consciousness. What they left out of the document was a provision for protecting the people once the checks and balances they provided were ignored or subverted by, for example, a President who makes his own law, a Congress that can be bought by lobbyists, or a Supreme Court with tenure “during good behavior” (no matter how obliquely it categorizes the law of the land).

 Ouroboros: End as beginning

(Copyright © 2009)

My personal brand of consciousness is the ongoing engagement between me and whatever phenomena serve as objects of my attention. My consciousness belongs to me and no other; it is of something else, what I call images or phenomena. Phenomena are not likenesses or representations of the world so much as they are products of the interaction between my brain and the world. The world I live in—my proprietary world of consciousness—is made up of me as subject and various phenomena as objects of current attention. So right from the start my world appears divided into two realms, subject and object, attender and the attended to, what William James called “the me” and “the not-me.”

Yet I would say that both subject and object are products of one and the same consciousness, so there’s only my view of me and my view of the world, which are not at all the same as myself and the world considered objectively. Objective self and objective world are constructs I build in my mind on the basis of the cumulative experience of phenomena available to me over a lifetime. So I live—as each one of us lives—in a unified world of personal consciousness without borders or divisions—the one and only world of our personal consciousness. That other world, the supposedly “real” or outside world, can only be a matter of inference and fleeting conjecture. Without doubt it is there, but what we can know of it is restricted to what the phenomenal versions in our minds say it is, which is a very intimate kind of hearsay, so not wholly reliable to say the least. James, for instance, says this in his chapter on Attention in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground—intelligible perspective, in a word. (Page 402.)

Unedited by consciousness, the “utter chaos” of the outer world would overwhelm us. So in reducing that world to phenomena, consciousness saves the day.

Every one knows [James goes on] what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others. (Page 403-404.)

But phenomena, I would say, are more drastically altered than merely being selected by our faculty of attention seems to suggest. Perception guided by personal interest and selective attention performs a major overhaul and rebuilding job in cutting the world down to a size we can deal with. Nothing about a phenomenon is as it might be in the world. Energy in the visible spectrum is reduced to a restricted palette of colors, wholly dismissing ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths, along with X-rays, gamma rays, radio waves, and the many other orders of energetic radiation impinging on us wholly undetected and unappreciated. By the time phenomena emerge in consciousness, the larger portion of energy in the universe has gone missing. What little makes it through our perceptual apparatus to become a phenomenon in the language of consciousness is transmogrified into something other than what it is on its own. The upshot being, in James’ words:

Suffice it meanwhile that each of us literally chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit. (Page 424.)

Which opens the way for me now to stride up to the mike and make my point. Living in worlds of our own making as we do, we typically direct our attention as if upon the mysterious world itself while, in truth, all we have to go on are the very phenomena we create for our personal use. I mean to suggest in this post—and in my blog as a whole—that a wholly different understanding of the lives we lead results from taking responsibility for our own seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting as represented in personal consciousness in order to, 1) better understand ourselves as makers of our own worlds, and 2) relate more effectively to others who devote their lives to doing exactly the same thing on the basis of their unique take on the world they actually inhabit in personal consciousness.

That is, as long as we give all credit (and blame) to the world for the lives we lead, we are trapped in the illusion that we can know the real world as it is in-and-of itself, when that world is a complete mystery to us. We make better use of our lives, and the lives of those around us, by living life as the great artwork we make of it—the work we are creating for ourselves at this instant in a universe we can only dimly comprehend. The miracle of consciousness—directed at its own foibles and achievements as it is—is that it is wholly self-reflexive. It is turned on itself, not the world. All we have to work with is the phenomena in our own minds. These phenomena are precisely what we should try to grasp in meaningful terms in order to live our lives with as much compassion and understanding as we are able. 

I have gotten to the point where I can say such things with a straight face after confronting my consciousness on a daily basis for thirty years now, and posting ten-months’ findings to this blog. These ideas are not sold in stores or written in books. Trouble is, we are living out ideas formulated by Aristotle and furthered by the church and academia for over 2,000 years. It is next to impossible to question the basic assumptions on which our schooling is founded, the same assumptions suporting the natural attitude by which we gaze on the world and believe we are seeing what is actually there without intervention from any sensory apparatus coming between ourselves and the scene we think of as before us when it is actually in us the whole time.

In the 20th century, behavioral psychologists, wanting to believe we were all automatons controlled by our environments, made an enemy of consciousness and denied it had any influence on behavior. Now cognitive neuroscientists are saying our brains work like computers, and information processing is the key to the mind. Others have viewed the mind as a clockwork, steam engine, hologram—whatever the going metaphor. And generations of students believe what they are currently being told in class, and dedicate their lives to spreading their views, just as theologians spread theirs as higher capital-T Truth accessible solely to prophets and holy men.

The revolution in how we view consciousness is upon us, just as the Reformation in religious thinking was made possible by invention of the printing press that made possible distribution of sacred texts translated into the language people could interpret for themselves without aid from any intervening priesthood. Subsequent invention of paper, pencil, typewriter, and computer continued the advance of informed interpretation of phenomena. Now the Internet has the potential of ushering in a new revolution in the understanding of consciousness itself by enabling people to get their minds together so they can compare experiences without interference from established institutions having to approve the interaction beforehand. In its current stage of development, FaceBook tends to be light and breezy because people are striving to make good impressions instead of using it as a tool for greater understanding of themselves and their friends. Blogosphere, ditto, everyone out to show how insightful their commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries really are. I’m a blogger, I should know.

Except, my whole thrust is to be true to my personal consciousness as one sample of what consciousness can be about. In posting to my blog 142 times, I have come to see that intentionality—the consciousness of objects—can be broken down into consciousness of situations, projects, goals, judgments, problems, priorities, issues, novel experiences, anxieties, interpretations, and so on. These are samples of what makes consciousness sit up and pay attention—what evolution has made us as subjects concerned about in order to act as meaningfully and effectively as we can. Which is no different from what human life is largely about.

It struck me this morning that relationships based on what actually occupies our attention rather than what we claim in order to make a good impression is the way to build compassionate relationships based on truth and reality, not personal mythology.

We don’t need to prove our merit or our worth by buying stuff, impressing others, going to fancy schools, sprinkling certain in-words throughout our conversations—that is, by pretending we are something that, under our clothing and our skins, we inherently are not. Good-by UPS trucks, big box stores, advertising, publicity, investments, banks—all those good things we rely on to create the illusion we are something other than what we are. So much for the economy devoted to shoring up pretense and illusion. So much for politicians pandering to their constituencies on the basis of identities they assume for the sake of making a good impression. The Internet has the potential of bypassing all this superstructure created by so-called civilized institutions. Of enabling people to get together on the basis of the searches they conduct to find out who they are and what they can do in this life—the one life they have to enjoy, or not.

What many cultures have found and we often overlook is that human happiness depends on relating to others in order that we do things together, cooperatively, not in competition. I am not talking altruism here, or self-righteousness. I am talking about me being me and you being you—providing a strong basis for getting together on a workable basis, not using each other to advance our respective unspoken agendas.

There are too many problems in the world to waste time in hot pursuit of illusions. That is what got us where we are today. We need to cut through all that and finally get to the point—which consciousness itself will reveal if we attend to it. Self-reflexive consciousness is not the same thing as staring at your navel. Consciousness, it turns out, is the source of all we can learn in this life and all wisdom. Your navel is just a scar to confirm you got your start inside another person who shared joint responsibility for your conception and birth. Got it. Move on. Inside, not outside. To the font of all experience, our personal consciousness, controlled by personal attention, controlled by personal passions and interests, controlled by the will to live as only we are able—by being fully ourselves. Believe me, consciousness-watching is a learned skill that takes well over ten-thousand hours to get good at. I am not suggesting we quit the race and party; I am suggestion we get down to work appropriate to our gifts.

Let’s agree to attend to life as it is given to us, not to the illusion of life presented to us by others. Let’s make use of our primary asset in living a life—personal consciousness. Accepting that as wholly our doing will tell us who we are, warts and all. Knowing who we are, we can relate on the solid ground of being ourselves without pretending to be anyone else. True learning and discovery await us inside, not outside. Especially not in any institution dedicated to selling illusions for profit. Consciousness is ours to use (or not) in understanding ourselves; the choice is ours. And the same for those around us understanding themselves. Relationships based on shared understanding are the way of the future. In the past we have dedicated ourselves to tearing down the Earth for the sake of fictitious benefits. Now we can build ourselves up to be worthy of the Earth that has provided for us all along.

Two Skiers

 

(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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Reflection 69: Values

February 25, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Acquisition of wealth is one of our values because it heightens the probability of personal survival. Not so much the survival of our physical person as survival of consciousness as we practice that art. That is, survival of those inner worlds we have been busy building for ourselves all these years.

 

Values are key concepts we derive from living our lives. They are envelopes for keeping life-enhancing experiences all in one place in our minds so they are readily available to us when we need them. Winning, justice, truth, beauty, freedom, love—these are names of a few common values. Just to say them stirs us mysteriously from within. They excite us, get our blood flowing faster to make us ready for intentional action.

 

Values are abstractions drawn from experience. As such, they are hollow, requiring new situations to give them substance in the here and now. Values are primal meanings waiting to happen, to be called to the fore of conscious judgment so we know which way to go and what to do in unfamiliar situations. Values are guides to the route by which the idea of the future can be realized in the actual present. Without them, what would we aim at? What would we work for? Who would we be?

 

Values give definite shape to the possibility of consciousness in specific situations. We are always on the lookout for instances of their embodiment, and perk up when we discover them. Much has been written directly and indirectly about values because blood has been stirred and even shed in their name. I here offer a few excerpts from my reading in recent years.

 

Parker Palmer, 2005. z  The Dalai Lama, Aung Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandella, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Vaclav Havel, and Thich Nhat Hanh, . . . . such people came to trust, not resist, the journey of heartbreak described by the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Kahn: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” Hearts like these have been broken open to a largeness that holds the promise of a better future for all, a “habit of the heart” without which democracy cannot survive, let alone flourish.

 

Terry Tempest Williams, 2004. z  The heart is the path to wisdom because it dares to be vulnerable in the presence of Power.

 

H. Maturana & F. Varela, 1987. z  The world will be different only if we live differently.

 

Mahatma Gandhi, 1869-1948. z  Become the change you seek in the world.

 

Leonard Joy, 2002. z  If we are to be purposive together, we must create spaces where we have conversations about what it means to be human on our planet.

 

Joy. z  Values development reflects a change in the nature of the relationship that a person has with self and other. When this comes from reflective self-awareness, I see the individual as being on a spiritual path and attainment as spiritual development.

 

Joy. z  Societal progress depends on self-reflecting individuals aspiring to higher values and finding resonance with others in this aspiration who together become an effective force for change.

 

Duane Elgin, 1993. z  Each person is a vitally important and unique agent in the process of planetary evolution.

 

Elgin. z  It is only through our individual awakening and creative action that the Earth will awaken as well.

 

G. Lakoff & M. Johnson, 1999. z  The environment is not an “other” to us. It is not a collection of things that we encounter. Rather, it is part of our being. . . . We cannot and do not exist apart from it.

 

Lakoff & Johnson. z  We appear to be the only animals who can reflect critically on their lives in order to make changes in how they behave.

 

Fritjof Capra, 1982. z  Detailed study of ecosystems . . . has shown quite clearly that most relationships between living organisms are essentially cooperative ones, characterized by coexistence and interdependence, and symbiotic in various degrees. Although there is competition, it usually takes place within a wider context of cooperation, so that the larger system is kept in balance.

 

Capra. z  What survives is the organism-in-its-environment. An organism that thinks only in terms of its own survival will invariably destroy its environment and, as we are learning from bitter experience, will thus destroy itself.

 

Capra. z  Value systems and ethics are not peripheral to science and technology but constitute their very basis and driving force. Hence the shift to a balanced social and economic system will require a corresponding shift of values—from self-assertion and competition to cooperation and social justice, from expansion to conservation, from material acquisition to inner growth.

 

Michael Polanyi, 1962. z  Where great originality is at work in science or, even more clearly, in artistic creation, the innovating mind sets itself new standards more satisfying to itself, and modifies itself by the process of innovation so as to become more satisfying to itself in the light of these self-set standards. Yet all the time the creative mind is searching for something believed to be real; which, being real, will—when discovered—be entitled to claim universal validity. . . . Such are the acts by which [the human mind improves itself].

 

Henry David Thoreau, 1854. z  If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

 

Charles Gibbs, 2005. z  So what do we do? We might begin by seeing ourselves as citizens of the Earth and children of the abiding Mystery at the heart of all that is. Then . . . set out on a journey to encounter the other and find ourselves.

 

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(Copyright © 2008) 

We’ve all had our trial run at the scientific method, usually in grammar or middle school. We’ve duly partnered up, signed-out supplies and equipment, controlled for variable conditions, followed procedures, made observations, recorded data, presented results, and learned whether we’d supported the teacher’s hypothesis or done it all wrong.

 

In other words, we were trained to create a situation for producing meaningful results. Which at the time meant coming up with the right answer, but beyond that, we disciplined ourselves to behave in certain ways so that our results would agree with what was already common knowledge. We weren’t finding out anything new; we were calibrating ourselves so we could sometimes claim to act objectively. That is, to avoid wittingly imposing our personal assumptions, views, and emotions on what we were doing.

 

The point of the “experiment” was to get us to act as if we were scientists. To become a scientist, you must act like a scientist. The teacher walked us through a model of the scientific method so we could find out what that might feel like. Some of us took to this strange way of doing things, others sat back and let our partners do the walking for the two of us.

 

My point here is that scientific results are primarily meaningful in situations that scientists would approve of because they conform to agreed-upon conditions set by the scientific community.

 

Most of us are not scientists and do not act like scientists. The situations in which we thrive are not governed by scientists. We cook, paint, hum along, daydream, go bowling—and are perfectly happy to lead our nonscientific lives without once thinking of data or procedures.

 

The funny thing is, many scientists would claim that the findings coming out of situations that make their conscious lives meaningful apply to us as well because they are universally valid and true (until proven otherwise). Which is odd because we nonscientists do not make the counterclaim that the situations in which we are disciplined and creative are meant to benefit scientists (or followers of other, equally exacting, disciplines).

 

This is an obvious example of nonsymmetrical consciousness. What’s true for me is true for you, but not vice versa. Maybe you have to have a certain chutzpah to be a scientist. When humanoids are all extinct, it won’t make any difference; our planet will go its own way—as it always has. But right now we are caught up in our versions of that planet as represented in consciousness. Some representations, it turns out, are truer than others. And some former scientific truths have been put aside. Phlogiston, for instance was once thought to make the air we breathe combustible. That’s where flames came from. You don’t hear it mentioned anymore. Doctors don’t still apply leeches, either, because science no longer believes in the four temperaments or four humors (leeching got rid of “excess” blood). Was the Manhattan Project (in which a team of scientists made the atom bomb possible) a good idea? Even some scientists would now say it wasn’t. What about arms merchant Alfred Nobel on his death bed agreeing to fund a peace prize with the profits he’d made? Which is truer, high explosives or world peace? Then there are all those chemicals (pesticides, dioxins, PCBs, PBDEs, toxic metals) showing up in mothers’ milk around the globe; without scientists, they wouldn’t be there. Which is it to be, breast feeding or the march of progress? In my mind, one is truth itself, the other a self-serving conceit.

 

If truth is to be found on planet Earth; it lives in the human mind. It is the product of conscious minds exercising themselves in particular ways in certain situations. The military made, tested, and dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. As a result, 220 thousand people died by the end of that year, followed by many others who died slower deaths from radiation poisoning. Ever since, nations have sought to guarantee such weapons would never be used again (while maintaining stockpiles of nuclear weapons just in case). Which is truer, the scientific triumph of the bomb, or the slaughter in its wake?

 

As a thought experiment (an exercise in just-pretend consciousness), put yourself in Harry Truman’s shoes (his situation) as he weighed arguments for and against dropping those two bombs. First, do it based on the information Truman had available to him in August 1945; then do it knowing what you know today. Clearly, dropping the first bomb was a terrible experiment because no one knew what would happen. But why drop the second after the first proved so devastating? Was it just because the Japanese were so slow to surrender? Or was it similar to the case of a murderer killing his victim with one stab, then killing him again and again in a rage?

 

What is the common element uniting the situations within which scientists ply their skills? As with businessmen, doctors, and soldiers, it must be the salary received for the work. Consciousness can be applied many ways, but in each case it has its price. That aspect of the scientific method is not much discussed.

 

Which makes me wonder whether truth has any meaning at all, even in the most conscious of minds. I now think Luigi Pirandello was right: it’s true if you think so. Time for full disclosure. I am a low-ranking science buff. I subscribed to Popular Science in the 1940s, and was the first person to subscribe to McGraw-Hill’s (then) new science magazine (name long forgotten). I did well in physics and chemistry in high school, and, logically enough, went off to MIT. Where I discovered science appealed to certain kinds of minds—minds that liked to speak with great authority while avoiding displays of emotion. I saw that as a macho kind of mind (there were nine female students in my day) which did not appeal to my more exploratory kind of mind. After two years, I transferred to Columbia in New York City, where I majored in the humanities.

 

MIT in those days was a situation unto itself, a haven for men who didn’t like asking for directions because it made them feel weak and submissive. It attracted students who thrived more by telling, not asking questions. We sat dutifully through lecture after lecture, taking notes, memorizing them, feeding them back on weekly quizzes. The first two years were largely the same for all students: physics, calculus, chemistry, mechanical drawing, engineering, with a token humanities course. You had to be committed to such a situation from the start. I leaked out of the mold I was poured into, so I left. Subsequently, I leaked out of other molds as well. Truth, for me, has always been elsewhere.

 

Here’s the irony: truth has to be a truth you can believe in. It has to flow naturally from your situation at the time. Which is why scientists stick by their approved methods. For myself, I pursue the elusive truth of consciousness because the situated mind is one place I have yet to fully explore. Novelty, not sameness, turns me on. So far my research has shown that my consciousness is highly fallible. On the fringe of awareness, I see things that aren’t there, and don’t see things that demonstrably are. At the center, I’m often on autopilot and am conscious only when forced into it by a novel turn of events. Now I’m interested in times when I’m fully alert and awake, and know I am—usually when I have a question to ask, or a new puzzle to solve.

 

What kind of situation is it that sets my consciousness going? Not one based on statistics or prescribed methods. I’m after one-of-a-kind events that are meaningful nonetheless, such as the episodes I’ve shared in earlier posts. I’ll be on this course for a long while yet, sharing bulletins from time to time via this blog.

 

If you’d like to share such episodes from your own experience, I’d be glad to hear from you.

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