Posts Tagged ‘Consciousness’

I picked up a copy of Daniel Siegel’s book Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human (2017) to read and supplement my ongoing preoccupation with human consciousness. Siegel’s writing is the source of considerable frustration. Now about 90 pp. into the book (I am considering putting it aside), he has committed several grammatical errors (where are book editors these days?), doesn’t really know how to use a comma properly, and doesn’t write in recognizable paragraph form. He has a bad habit of posing questions to suggest the answers he wants to give and drops constant hints of something soon to be explored like news broadcasts that tease the next segment. He also deploys a tired, worn metaphor that readers are on a journey of discovery with him, embarked on a path, exploring a subject, etc. Yecch. (A couple Amazon reviews also note that grayish type on parchment (cream) paper poses a legibility problem due to poor contrast even in good light — undoubtedly not really Siegel’s fault.)

Siegel’s writing is also irritatingly circular, casting and recasting the same sentences in repetitious series of assertions that have me wondering frequently, “Haven’t I already read this?” Here are a couple examples:

When energy flows inside your body, can you sense its movement, how it changes moment by moment?

then only three sentences later

Energy, and energy-as-information, can be felt in your mental experience as it emerges moment by moment. [p. 52]

Another example:

Seeing these many facets of mind as emergent properties of energy and information flow helps link the inner and inter aspect of mind seamlessly.

then later in the same paragraph

In other words, mind seen this way could be in what seems like two places at once as inner and inter are part of one interconnected, undivided system. [p. 53]

This is definitely a bug, not a feature. I suspect the book could easily be condensed from 330 pp. to less than 200 pp. if the writing weren’t so self-indulgent of the author. Indeed, while I recognize a healthy dose of repetition is an integral part of narrative form (especially in music), Siegel’s relentless repetition feels like propaganda 101, where guileless insistence (of lies or merely the preferred story one seeks to plant in the public sphere) wears down the reader rather than convinces him or her. This is also marketing 101 (e.g., Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Budweiser, etc. continuing to advertise what are by now exceedingly well-established brands).

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A long while back, I blogged about things I just don’t get, including on that list the awful specter of identity politics. As I was finishing my undergraduate education some decades ago, the favored term was “political correctness.” That impulse now looks positively tame in comparison to what occurs regularly in the public sphere. It’s no longer merely about adopting what consensus would have one believe is a correct political outlook. Now it’s a broad referendum centered on the issue of identity, construed though the lens of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identification, lifestyle, religion, nationality, political orientation, etc.

One frequent charge levied against offenders is cultural appropriation, which is the adoption of an attribute or attributes of a culture by someone belonging to a different culture. Here, the term “culture” is a stand-in for any feature of one’s identity. Thus, wearing a Halloween costume from another culture, say, a bandido, is not merely in poor taste but is understood to be offensive if one is not authentically Mexican. Those who are infected with the meme are often called social justice warriors (SJW), and policing (of others, natch) is especially vehement on campus. For example, I’ve read of menu items at the school cafeteria being criticized for not being authentic enough. Really? The won ton soup offends Chinese students?

In an opinion-editorial in the NY Times entitled “Will the Left Survive the Millennials?” Lionel Shriver described being sanctioned for suggesting that fiction writers not be too concerned about creating characters from backgrounds different from one’s own. He contextualizes the motivation of SJWs this way: (more…)

I pause periodically to contemplate deep time, ancient history, and other subjects that lie beyond most human conceptual abilities. Sure, we sorta get the idea of a very long ago past out there in the recesses or on the margins, just like we get the idea of U.S. sovereign debt now approaching $20 trillion. Problem is, numbers lose coherence when they mount up too high. Scales differ widely with respect to time and currency. Thus, we can still think reasonably about human history back to roughly 6,000 years ago, but 20,000 years ago or more draws a blank. We can also think about how $1 million might have utility, but $1 billion and $1 trillion are phantoms that appear only on ledgers and contracts and in the news (typically mergers and acquisitions). If deep time or deep debt feel like they don’t exist except as conceptual categories, try wrapping your head around the deep state , which in the U.S. is understood to be a surprisingly large rogue’s gallery of plutocrats, kleptocrats, and oligarchs drawn from the military-industrial-corporate complex, the intelligence community, and Wall Street. It exists but does so far enough outside the frame of reference most of us share that it effectively functions in the shadow of daylight where it can’t be seen for all the glare. Players are plain enough to the eye as they board their private jets to attend annual meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, or two years ago the Jackson Hole [Economic] Summit in Jackson Hole, WY, in connection with the American Principles Project, whatever that is. They also enjoy plausible deniability precisely because most of us don’t really believe self-appointed masters of the universe can or should exist.

Another example of a really bad trip down the rabbit hole, what I might call deep cynicism (and a place I rarely allow myself to go), appeared earlier this month at Gin and Tacos (on my blogroll):

The way they [conservatives] see it, half the kids coming out of public schools today are basically illiterate. To them, this is fine. We have enough competition for the kinds of jobs a college degree is supposed to qualify one for as it is. Our options are to pump a ton of money into public schools and maybe see some incremental improvement in outcomes, or we can just create a system that selects out the half-decent students for a real education and future and then warehouse the rest until they’re no longer minors and they’re ready for the prison-poverty-violence cycle [add military] to Hoover them up. Vouchers and Charter Schools are not, to the conservative mind, a better way to educate kids well. They are a cheaper way to educate them poorly. What matters is that it costs less to people like six-figure income earners and home owners. Those people can afford to send their kids to a decent school anyway. Public education, to their way of thinking, used to be about educating people just enough that they could provide blue collar or service industry labor. Now that we have too much of that, a public high school is just a waiting room for prison. So why throw money into it? They don’t think education “works” anyway; people are born Good or Bad, Talented or Useless. So it only makes sense to find the cheapest possible way to process the students who were written off before they reached middle school. If charter schools manage to save 1% of them, great. If not, well, then they’re no worse than public schools. And they’re cheaper! Did I mention that they’re cheaper?

There’s more. I provided only the main paragraph. I wish I could reveal that the author is being arch or ironic, but there is no evidence of that. I also wish I could refute him, but there is similarly no useful evidence for that. Rather, the explanation he provides is a reality check that fits the experience of wide swaths of the American public, namely, that “public high school is just a waiting room for prison” (soon and again, debtor’s prison) and that it’s designed to be just that because it’s cheaper than actually educating people. Those truly interesting in being educated will take care of it themselves. Plus, there’s additional money to be made operating prisons.

Deep cynicism is a sort of radical awareness that stares balefully at the truth and refuses to blink or pretend. A psychologist might call it the reality principle; a scientist might aver that it relies unflinchingly on objective evidence; a philosopher might call it strict epistemology. To get through life, however, most of us deny abundant evidence presented to us daily in favor of dreams and fantasies that assemble into the dominant paradigm. That paradigm includes the notions that evil doesn’t really exist, that we’re basically good people who care about each other, and that our opportunities and fates are not, on the whole, established long before we begin the journey.

Caveat: Apologies for this overlong post, which random visitors (nearly the only kind I have besides the spambots) may find rather challenging.

The puzzle of consciousness, mind, identity, self, psyche, soul, etc. is an extraordinarily fascinating subject. We use various terms, but they all revolve around a unitary property and yet come from different approaches, methodologies, and philosophies. The term mind is probably the most generic; I tend to use consciousness interchangeably and more often. Scientific American has a entire section of its website devoted to the mind, with subsections on Behavior & Society, Cognition, Mental Health, Neurological Health, and Neuroscience. (Top-level navigation offers links to these sections: The Sciences, Mind, Health, Tech, Sustainability, Education, Video, Podcasts, Blogs, and Store.) I doubt I will explore very deeply because science favors the materialist approach, which I believe misses the forest through the trees. However, the presence of this area of inquiry right at the top of the page indicates how much attention and research the mind/consciousness is currently receiving.

A guest blog at Scientific American by Adam Bear entitled “What Neuroscience Says about Free Will” makes the fashionable argument (these days) that free will doesn’t exist. The blog/article is disclaimed: “The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.” I find that a little weaselly. Because the subject is still wide open to interpretation and debate, Scientific American should simply offer conflicting points of view without worry. Bear’s arguments rest on the mind’s ability to revise and redate experience occurring within the frame of a few milliseconds to allow for processing time, also known as the postdictive illusion (the opposite of predictive). I wrote about this topic more than four years ago here. Yet another discussion is found here. I admit to being irritated that the questions and conclusions stem from a series of assumptions, primarily that whatever free will is must occur solely in consciousness (whatever that is) as opposed to originating in the subconscious and subsequently transferring into consciousness. Admittedly, we use these two categories — consciousness and the subconscious — to account for the rather limited amount of processing that makes it all the way into awareness vs. the significant amount that remains hidden or submerged. A secondary assumption, the broader project of neuroscience in fact, is that, like free will, consciousness is housed somewhere in the brain or its categorical functions. Thus, fruitful inquiry results from seeking its root, seed, or seat as though the narrative constructed by the mind, the stream of consciousness, were on display to an inner observer or imp in what Daniel Dennett years ago called the Cartesian Theater. That time-worn conceit is the so-called ghost in the machine. (more…)

The last time I blogged about this topic, I took an historical approach, locating the problem (roughly) in time and place. In response to recent blog entries by Dave Pollard at How to Save the World, I’ve delved into the topic again. My comments at his site are the length of most of my own blog entries (3–4 paras.), whereas Dave tends to write in chapter form. I’ve condensed to my self-imposed limit.

Like culture and history, consciousness is a moving train that yields its secrets long after it has passed. Thus, assessing our current position is largely conjectural. Still, I’ll be reckless enough to offer my intuitions for consideration. Dave has been pursuing radical nonduality, a mode of thought characterized by losing one’s sense of self and becoming selfless, which diverges markedly from ego consciousness. That mental posture, described elsewhere by nameless others as participating consciousness, is believed to be what preceded the modern mind. I commented that losing oneself in intense, consuming flow behaviors is commonplace but temporary, a familiar, even transcendent place we can only visit. Its appeals are extremely seductive, however, and many people want to be there full-time, as we once were. The problem is that ego consciousness is remarkably resilient and self-reinforcing. Despite losing oneself from time to time, we can’t be liberated from the self permanently, and pathways to even temporarily getting out of one’s own head are elusive and sometimes self-destructive.

My intuition is that we are fumbling toward just such a quieting of the mind, a new dark age if you will, or what I called self-lite in my discussion with Dave. As we stagger forth, groping blindly in the dark, the transitional phase is characterized by numerous disturbances to the psyche — a crisis of consciousness wholly different from the historical one described previously. The example uppermost in my thinking is people lost down the rabbit hole of their handheld devices and desensitized to the world beyond the screen. Another is the ruined, wasted minds of (arguably) two or more generations of students done great disservice by their parents and educational institutions at all levels, a critical mass of intellectually stunted and distracted young adults by now. Yet another is those radicalized by their close identification with one or more special interest groups, also known as identity politics. A further example is the growing prevalence of confusion surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity. In each example, the individual’s ego is confused, partially suppressed, and/or under attack. Science fiction and horror genres have plenty of instructive examples of people who are no longer fully themselves, their bodies zombified or made into hosts for another entity that takes up residence, commandeering or shunting aside the authentic, original self.

Despite having identified modern ego consciousness as a crisis and feeling no small amount of empathy for those seeking radical nonduality, I find myself in the odd position of defending the modern mind precisely because transitional forms, if I have understood them properly, are so abhorrent. Put another way, while I can see the potential value and allure of extinguishing the self even semi-permanently, I will not be an early adopter. Indeed, if the modern mind took millennia to develop as one of the primary evolutionary characteristics of homo sapiens sapiens, it seems foolish to presume that it can be uploaded into a computer, purposely discarded by an act of will, or devolved in even a few generations. Meanwhile, though the doomer in me recognizes that ego consciousness is partly responsible for bringing us to the brink of (self-)annihilation (financial, geopolitical, ecological), individuality and intelligence are still highly prized where they can be found.

In my travels and readings upon the Intertubes, which proceed in fits and starts, I stumbled across roughly the same term — The NOW! People — used in completely different contexts and with different meanings. Worth some unpacking for idle consideration.

Meaning and Usage the First: The more philosophical of the two, this refers to those who feel anxiety, isolation, estrangement, disenfranchisement, and alienation from the world in stark recognition of the self-other problem and/or mind-body dualism. They seek to lose their identity and the time-boundedness that goes with being a separate self by entering a mental state characterized by the eternal NOW, much as animals without consciousness are believed to think. Projection forward and back more than a few moments in time is foreclosed; one simply exists NOW! Seminars and YouTube videos on radical nonduality are offers by Tony Parsons, Jim Newman, Andreas Müller, and Kenneth Madden, but according to my source (unacknowledged and unlinked), they readily admit that despite study, meditation, openness, and desire to achieve this state of mind, it is not prone to being triggered. It either happens or it doesn’t. Nonetheless, some experiences and behaviors allow individuals to transcend themselves at least to some degree, such as music, dance, and sex.

Meaning and Usage the Second: The more populist and familiar of the two, this refers to people for whom NOW! is always the proper time to do whatever the hell they most urgently desire with no consideration given to those around them. The more mundane instance is someone stopping in a doorway or on an escalator to check their phones for, oh, I dunno, Facebook updates and new e-mail. A similar example is an automobile driver over whom traffic and parking controls have no effect: someone double-parked (flashers optional) in the middle of the road or in a fire lane, some who executes a U-turn in the middle of traffic, or someone who pointlessly jumps the line in congestion just to get a few cars lengths ahead only to sit in yet more traffic. The same disregard and disrespect for others is evident in those who insist on saving seats or places in line, or on the Chicago L, those who occupy seats with bags that really belong on their laps or stand blocking the doorways (typically arms extended looking assiduously at their phones), making everyone climb past them to board or alight the train. These examples are all about someone commandeering public space as personal space at the anonymous expense of anyone else unfortunate enough to be in the same location, but examples multiply quickly beyond these. Courtesy and other social lubricants be damned! I want what I want right NOW! and you can go pound sand.

Both types of NOW! behavior dissolve the thinking, planning, orchestrating, strategizing mind in favor of narrowing thought and perception to this very moment. The first gives away willfulness and desire in favor of tranquility and contentedness, whereas the second demonstrates single-minded pursuit of a single objective without thought of consequence, especially to others. Both types of NOW! People also fit within the Transhumanist paradigm, which has among its aims leaving behind worldly concerns to float freely as information processors. If I were charitable about The NOW! People, I might say they lose possession of themselves by absorption into a timeless, mindless present; if less charitable, I might say that annihilation of the self (however temporary) transforms them into automatons.

The sole appeal I can imagine to retreating from oneself to occupy the eternal moment, once one has glimpsed, sensed, or felt the bitter loneliness of selfhood, is cessation of suffering. To cross over into selflessness is to achieve liberation from want, or in the Buddhist sense, Nirvana. Having a more Romantic aesthetic, my inclination is instead to go deeper and to seek the full flower of humanity in all its varieties. That also means recognizing, acknowledging, and embracing darker aspects of human experience, and yes, no small amount of discomfort and suffering. Our psycho-spiritual capacity demands it implicitly. But it takes strong character to go toward extremes of light and dark. The NOW! People narrow their range radically and may well be the next phase of human consciousness if I read the tea leaves correctly.

While I’m revisiting old posts, the term digital exhaust came up again in a very interesting article by Shoshana Zuboff called “The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism,” published in Frankfurter Allgemeine in March 2016. I no longer remember how I came upon it, but its publication in a obscure (to Americans) German newspaper (German and English versions available) was easily located online with a simple title search. The article has certainly not gone viral the way social media trends work, but someone obviously picked it up, promoted it, and raised it to the level of awareness of lots of folks, including me.

My earlier remarks about digital exhaust were that the sheer volume of information produced and exchanged across digital media quickly becomes unmanageable, with the result that much of it becomes pointless ephemera — the useless part of the signal-to-noise ratio. Further, I warned that by turning our attention to digital sources of information of dubious value, quality, and authority, we face an epistemological shift that could take considerable hindsight to describe accurately. That was 2007. It may not yet be long enough to fully understand effect(s) too well, or to crystallize the moment (to reuse my pet phrase yet again), but the picture is already clarifying somewhat terrifyingly.

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Today is the 10-year anniversary of the opening of this blog. As a result, there is a pretty sizeable backblog should anyone decide to wade in. As mentioned in my first post, I only opened this blog to get posting privileges at a group blog I admired because it functioned more like a discussion than a broadcast. The group blog died of attrition years ago, yet here I am 10 years later still writing my personal blog (which isn’t really about me).

Social media lives and dies by the numbers, and mine are deplorable. Annual traffic has ranged from about 6,800 to about 12,500 hits, much of which I’m convinced is mere background noise and bot traffic. Cumulative hits number about 90,140, and unique visitors are about 19,350, neither of which is anything to crow about for a blog of this duration. My subscriber count continues to climb pointlessly, now resting at 745. However, I judge I might have only a half dozen regular readers and perhaps half again as many commentators. I’ve never earned a cent for my effort, nor am I likely to ever put up a Patreon link or similar goad for donations. All of which only demonstrate that almost no one cares what I have to write about. C’est la vie. I don’t write for that purpose and frankly wouldn’t know what to write about if I were trying to drive numbers.

So if you have read my blog, what are some of the thing you might have gathered from me? Here’s an incomplete synopsis:

  • Torture is unspeakably bad. History is full of devices, methodologies, and torturers, but we learned sometime in the course of two 20th-century world wars that nothing justifies it. Nevertheless, it continues to occur with surprising relish, and those who still torture (or want to) are criminally insane.
  • Skyscrapers are awesomely tall examples of technical brilliance, exuberance, audacity, and hubris. Better expressions of techno-utopian, look-mom-no-hands, self-defeating narcissism can scarcely be found. Yet they continue to be built at a feverish pace. The 2008 financial collapse stalled and/or doomed a few projects, but we’re back to game on.
  • Classical music, despite record budgets for performing ensembles, has lost its bid for anything resembling cultural and artistic relevance by turning itself into a museum (performing primarily works of long-dead composers) and abandoning emotional expression in favor of technical perfection, which is probably an accurate embodiment of the spirit of the times. There is arguably not a single living composer who has become a household name since Aaron Copland, who died in 1990 but was really well-known in the 1940s and 50s.
  • We’re doomed — not in any routine sense of the word having to do with individual mortality but in the sense of Near-Term (Human) Extinction (NTE). The idea is not widely accepted in the least, and the arguments are too lengthy to repeat (and unlikely to convince). However, for those few able to decipher it, the writing is on the wall.
  • American culture is a constantly moving target, difficult to define and describe, but its principal features are only getting uglier as time wears on. Resurgent racism, nationalism, and misogyny make clear that while some strides have been made, these attitudes were only driven underground for a while. Similarly, colonialism never really died but morphed into a new version (globalization) that escapes criticism from the masses, because, well, goodies.
  • Human consciousness — another moving target — is cratering (again) after 3,000–5,000 years. We have become hollow men, play actors, projecting false consciousness without core identity or meaning. This cannot be sensed or assessed easily from the first-person perspective.
  • Electronic media makes us tools. The gleaming attractions of sterile perfection and pseudo-sociability have hoodwinked most of the public into relinquishing privacy and intellectual autonomy in exchange for the equivalent of Huxley’s soma. This also cannot be sensed or assessed easily from the first-person perspective.
  • Electoral politics is a game played by the oligarchy for chumps. Although the end results are not always foreseeable (Jeb!), the narrow range of options voters are given (lesser of evils, the devil you know …) guarantees that fundamental change in our dysfunctional style of government will not occur without first burning the house down. After a long period of abstention, I voted in the last few elections, but my heart isn’t really in it.
  • Cinema’s infatuation with superheros and bankable franchises (large overlap there) signals that, like other institutions mentioned above, it has grown aged and sclerotic. Despite large budgets and impressive receipts (the former often over $100 million and the latter now in the billions for blockbusters) and considerable technical prowess, cinema has lost its ability to be anything more than popcorn entertainment for adolescent fanboys (of all ages).

This is admittedly a pretty sour list. Positive, worthwhile manifestations of the human experience are still out there, but they tend to be private, modest, and infrequent. I still enjoy a successful meal cooked in my own kitchen. I still train for and race in triathlons. I still perform music. I still make new friends. But each of these examples is also marred by corruptions that penetrate everything we do. Perhaps it’s always been so, and as I, too, age, I become increasingly aware of inescapable distortions that can no longer be overcome with innocence, ambition, energy, and doublethink. My plan is to continue writing the blog until it feels like a burden, at which point I’ll stop. But for now, there’s too much to think and write about, albeit at my own leisurely pace.

This xkcd comic bugged me when I first saw it, but I didn’t give it too much thought at first because its dismissive approach to media is quite familiar and a bit tiresome:

On reflections, however, and in combination with other nonsense I’ve been reading, the irksome joke/not joke hasn’t faded from my thinking. So I’ll be very unhip and respond without the appropriate ironic detachment that modern life demands of us, where everything is cool and chill and like, dude, whatever ….

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I’ve been puzzling for some time over my increasingly visceral aversion to folks face-planted in their phones and tablets. It’s not merely their often being stumblebums clogging hallways, corridors, sidewalks, and elevators with rank inattention to traffic flows, though that public nuisance has been jangling my nerves to a startling degree. The answer, I was surprised to discover when I began reading Matthew Crawford’s highly regarded book The World Beyond Your Head, is my sense that those staring unwaveringly at their screens are in effect denying sociability in the most ordinary of ways by failing to acknowledge my presence with a nod or even eye contact. This is most surprising to me because I used to eschew common social graces (a couple decades ago) but have revised my thinking through recognition that, as social creatures, we take cues from each other ranging from inconsequential to life and death. None should be discarded. Even though I don’t expect soul-felt validation of my very person in day-to-day interactions, the notable absence of any acknowledgement whatsoever feels less passively neutral, more aggressively hostile. Indeed, I’ve heard stories of people wearing earbuds (without being jacked into anything) precisely to forestall anyone striking up a conversation. I call that protective headgear.

Crawford describes a familiar scene: travelers in an airport gate lounge zoned maniacally into one type of screen or another, some handheld, others mounted overhead, but in either case oblivious to each other in what might have been a social milieu in the day before electronic gadgetry and TVs (e.g., a train depot). Social conduct even in the traditional liquor bar is difficult to maintain when so many screens commandeer one’s attention. Blanket disregard for each other is understandable to Crawford because we now face so many arbitrary demands on our attention (e.g., advertising everywhere, now even on the trays the TSA uses at security checkpoints) that the response is often to cocoon oneself away from the world. Thus, according to Crawford, “we engage less than we once did in everyday activities that structure our attention.” His antidote to living in our heads, transfixed by representations of reality (as opposed to actuality), is to develop skilled practices that focus and refine attention. This is his subject in his previous book Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I have not read. Thus, to be more authentically human, or to be “a powerful, independent mind working at full song,” is to be situated within “narrow and highly structured patterns of attention” that require bodily engagement and submission to constraints that remove the faux freedom of choice.

Here I must pause to register my dismay that Crawford fails to acknowledge Albert Borgmann and his description of focal practices. Many philosophers and their ideas are cited in the book so far (I’m up to p. 95), but to omit Borgmann is an egregious error someone should have caught. I also find it astonishing that Crawford quite clearly speaks my language and makes many of the same points I have been making here at The Spiral Staircase, though with far greater detail and thoroughness as book form requires. However, the language is often clunky and reads too much like a psychology text (which is why I stopped reading books by Robert Putnam — and Albert Borgmann — partway through). I will read to the end of The World Beyond Your Head, but I won’t turn it into a book blogging project since it’s so close to the things I already write about.

So what’s one to do in the presence of others who are steadfastly disengaged from everyone else? I recall last month stepping onto an elevator with maybe five others on the way home from work where no one had yet face-planted into a phone. We all looked at each other briefly, relaxed, not in that awkward elevator way, when inevitably one fellow dove into his pocket a produced a phone. I blurted out without exercising my usual self-editing restraint, “So you’re the one who just had to whip out his pacifier.” Luckily, it came across as a joke and everyone laughed, but I think my intent was really sanction. I resist the pull of electronics as much as I can (I have a cell phone but no data line), but I recognize that though I may be swimming upstream, I cannot redirect the flow of everyone’s attention inexorably into personal screens. Storms along the eastern seaboard last week knocked out power for many for a few hours. No doubt some (re)discovered what it means to be with their families (or alone with their thoughts) without electronic mediation. Do they look dumbly at each other and say “What now?” (as was reported to me) or be sociable?