Swallow or be Swallowed
A statement in a booklet on fishing, Lunkers & Limits, describes a world without self-consciousness. It said: “Fish are not hard to catch. And that is a fact. Now ‘think’ about it, a fish has nothing to think with. Even the largest of our freshwater game fish doesn’t have a brain as large as a kidney bean. A fish has only instinct, and under any combination of conditions he will, according to his species, react to those conditions THE SAME WAY EVERY TIME.”
If a fish had a brain like a human being’s, it would not react the same way every time but would learn from experience. Especially if it had been hooked after going for a worm dangled on the end of a string, this fish would learn to avoid the bait. The thought of that unpleasant consequence would override the immediate temptation to eat the worm. Crediting the fish with superior intelligence, one can imagine a paradigm shift in its thinking in which the fish could envision the fisherman sitting in the boat above and holding the string with baited hook for the purpose of catching and killing itself. The self-conscious fish could see that the fisherman was doing this intentionally and a counter strategy was required - i.e., don’t take the bait. The fisherman’s motive would be a factor in the fish’s thinking.
Self-consciousness is, in the first instance, an interior mental image in which mind perceives its own thought. That does not mean that such images are strictly a private matter. Insofar as thoughts cause action, self-conscious thoughts may cause certain kinds of actions which can only be understood in reference to them. The meaning of their events does not lie in simple perceptions of fact but in a compression of several thoughts. The motivating thought takes into consideration another thought, which may take into consideration still another thought, etc. One needs to see these awarenesses together to understand the self-conscious motive behind the act. Only by perceiving the motivation in its full history of conscious thinking can one know why this act was done.
limits of social science
The evident success of the physical sciences has raised hopes that a similar type of knowledge might be developed for human behavior. That is the theory behind the social sciences. If the laws of physics can explain planetary motions, why cannot scientific methods be used to discover the principles governing how people think and act? Are not a man’s body and brain subject to the same natural laws as other physical objects? Yes, in some ways. Still, human behavior is different from other natural phenomena in one important respect: It has an interior dimension of being in addition to the exterior, visible dimension. This interior dimension represents a person’s thoughts. To the actor himself, it seems clear that his own actions originate in thoughts. If that is generally the case, then the causality of human behavior rests upon processes that are beyond external observation. If it is impossible to observe the actual causes, techniques of empirical science would be useless in explaining effects. The scientist could not see what a person was thinking when he behaved in a certain way.
Scientific knowledge can be described as “knowledge from the outside”. An observer reports what he sees without becoming involved in the subject’s processes of mind. That is the proud boast of empirical science: to be dispassionate and objective. In that spirit, the social scientist would study human behavior apart from its cultural matrix. It were as if an anthropologist, encountering a tribe of headhunters in Borneo, observed them from a safe distance through binoculars. He would learn something about them by this method but would have little comprehension of why these people behaved as they did. If the anthropologist wanted knowledge of this, he would have to live among them, learn their language, and have discussions with them concerning their culture. That would be “knowledge from the inside”. The observer would put himself “inside someone else’s shoes.”
To understand conscious behavior scientifically, we would need to see the underlying thoughts. Action gives a clue to those thoughts but the primary facts are known only to the thinker himself. The social scientist attempts to overcome this barrier of knowledge by asking that person what his thoughts were through interviews, opinion surveys, and the like. The results are considered “empirical evidence” of the subject’s state of mind. Unfortunately for the scientist, there is no guarantee that the subject will give accurate information. While one might assume that people will give honest answers in a scientific study, that may not be the case if a subject feels that the questions are “stupid” or threaten his interests. The subject may perceive that the psychologist is gathering this information not to advance scientific knowledge but to manipulate him in some way. He may then exercise his option as an intelligent human being to subvert this process of gathering information about his thoughts by giving deliberately wrong answers. He has pulled a role reversal on the psychologist with respect to self-consciousness.
Let us suppose, for example, that a psychologist is helping to screen applicants for a job. He asks a series of personal questions which request, among other things, that the applicant disclose mental illness, criminality, or deviant sexual behavior. Each applicant is asked to answer the questions truthfully so that the interviewer can relate his responses to the job requirements. However, the applicant realizes that his answers to these questions may determine whether or not he is offered the job. He also suspects that, all else being equal, the employer would prefer not to hire someone who has mental problems, is criminally inclined, or shows tendencies toward sexual deviance. Therefore, the interview becomes a cat-and-mouse game between the psychologist and job applicant with the latter pretending to give honest answers but actually withholding information which he feels might ruin his chances of being hired. As another example, the Los Angeles Rams once hired a group of sports psychologists to try to determine why the team was in last place. Even though their study stood to benefit the team members, coach George Allen reports that this attempt backfired. It may be that the players resented being seen as an example of failure. When the Rams got rid of the psychologists, team play turned around.
Social scientists treat people as if they were no different than other objects. As the geologist studies rocks, so the psychologist collects information about human beings. Once a subject is known, the knowledge can be utilized for the knower’s purposes. Unlike natural objects, however, people have a way of fighting back. They can change the behavior which others have learned to use against them. They can outwit the one who tries to manipulate them by giving false information. They can mulishly refuse to cooperate. The social sciences thus have a glaring weakness: their inability to handle the element of self-consciousness in human behavior. Scientific laws assume a fixed relationship between elements in nature, but people’s minds give them the ability to adapt to new situations. The scientist’s reflective mirrors do not work so well when reflecting other mirrors.
Man is a thinking creature whose mind is capable of operating on the same level as the scientist’s own thoughts. There is no “pure behavior” uncontaminated by the awareness that one is being observed. Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” in physics has a counterpart in the social sciences. The act of observing destroys or changes that which is observed. Human motivation is more complicated than what can be explained by simple behavioral principles. In the field economics, for instance, the “laws” of rational behavior do not work when people fear that the system is not functioning. The public perception of a crisis can itself be a destabilizing economic influence. During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Likewise, the experience of unusually rapid inflation in the late 1970s destabilized prices as people decided to spend their depreciating money as quickly as possible. That widespread decision artificially pumped up consumer demand, causing prices to rise faster still.
Because social scientists lack the ability to observe human thoughts, they have tended to deny the causal efficacy of thought, arguing instead that man is really motivated by his physical appetites, governed by stimulus-response conditioning, or controlled from unconscious or subconscious levels of mind. From that standpoint, conscious thoughts become a kind of parallel manifestation having little causal significance. Instead, the social scientist’s theory would describe the true cause of behavior. For Sigmund Freud, man’s conscious thoughts were surface symptoms of a deeper psychic reality, not to be taken at face value. For Karl Marx, human culture was a harmless accompaniment to a society’s economic relationships. Such schemes trivialize and degrade conscious experience. They say to a person: “It does not matter what you think. We know you better than you know yourself.”
Most theories are derived from examining particular cases of something. The insights gained in one area, elevated to general principles, are then applied to other areas. So their pattern is made to fit situations which may differ from that of its origin. In the book Soul on Ice, author Eldridge Cleaver complained of the psychiatrist assigned to him in prison. Schooled in Freudian psychotherapy (a product of life among upper-middle-class Jews in 19th Century Vienna), this psychiatrist kept probing for evidence of an unsatisfactory relationship between Cleaver and his parents in early childhood. Although Cleaver repeatedly mentioned the racial conflicts which had led to a feeling of anger and eventual crime, the psychiatrist refused to allow that such experiences had any bearing on his situation. Cleaver concluded, with disgust, that this man was thoroughly dishonest.
A theory which has become a scientific law must describe without exception the observed patterns in nature. However, human consciousness can go every which way. Individuals who think freely will come up with an impossible variety of thought patterns. What people consciously decide to do is a cause of their behavior. To remain true to its empirical method, science should respect human consciousness by including its various thoughts within scientific knowledge. A principle of science is a single proposition of truth. If human thoughts are diverse, however, each thought should be represented within the structure of knowledge. No single form could represent the diverse elements of thinking that shape human society. That seems to rule out science as an explanation for such phenomena.
alternative structures of knowledge
Other disciplines do not have this problem because they make no claim to general knowledge. For example, the truths expressed in a poem or in a story take the form of analogies between the described events and a certain class of experiences. Such analogies are not structures of general knowledge, but narrations of events similar to certain other ones. History and fictional literature tell stories. They purport to describe an event which has or might have taken place. Each character in the story has his or her own consciousness. A variety of conscious points of view therefore coexist without the story’s having to force them all into a certain pattern. There is, however, an overall consciousness which would be the narrator’s point of view. While the characters have only partial awareness of what is happening, this person (who is the author telling the story) sees everything. Yet, it is understood that stories can be narrated in various ways and from various points of view. There is room in the stories for conscious and self-conscious thoughts of every kind.
Another model of knowledge would be that which it takes to win a game of chess. No single set of concepts describes all the situations that chess players encounter during this game. A player’s moves are not deduced from general principles of chess knowledge. Instead, the reasoning which players use is like following events in a story. Examining his situation, a player rules out potential mistakes before picking the next move. Advanced players study actual games played by the grand masters. They memorize particular combinations of positions in those games, often assigning the original player’s name to a move. By remembering hundreds or thousands of different combinations and sequences of moves, an expert player acquires the knowledge to win games. Chess is a game of self-conscious thinking. The player thinks to himself: “If I move here, then my opponent will move there; then I will move here, and he will move there” - and so on as far as the reasoning process will stretch. Each player assumes that the other is of equal intelligence and will make the best possible move in a given situation. The move which a player actually makes takes into consideration all the other player’s possible thoughts in an anticipatory story played out in his mind. That is why chess logic is self-conscious.
One sees, therefore, a dichotomy in the types of knowledge. On one hand, we have science and mathematics: principles, rules, laws, theorems, formulae. On the other hand, we have knowledge like that presented in literature, history, chess, and similar fields. The latter knowledge is presented in the form of stories. Stories describe events that move from a beginning point to a conclusion. In contrast with science, which seeks to make memory obsolete, story-based knowledge requires memory to hold the separate pieces of information together. This “memory” can take the form of a sheet of paper on which words are written or magnetic codings on a computer disk. In either case, each point of information is retained separately yet belongs to a system. This structure solves the problem of multiple consciousnesses that one finds in human behavior. On the other hand, the memory system can become unwieldy. One may have to read through an enormous volume of writings to find the knowledge that one seeks. Electronic computers make quick work of this process. Therefore, one can expect computers to take over many functions which human beings possessing such knowledge once performed. Computers can even play chess. On May 17, 1997, a computer designed by IBM beat Gary Kasparov, then the world’s greatest living chess player, in a tournament-like competition.
Some scientists believe that the human mind functions more like a storyteller than a calculating machine. Experimenters with artificial intelligence at Yale have dropped the “key word” approach to meaning in favor of a model called “conceptual dependency representation”. This concept relates meaning to certain core activities which normally happen in a fixed sequence. There is a standard script which mind uses to understand a particular experience and fill in the missing blanks. One needs only to mention some of its elements for the mind to realize that a certain script is being used and infer the remaining parts. “Without the memory of previous events such as visits to a restaurant, we could not build scripts, plans, and other structures of language,” a report explained. “It is our ability to remember that allows us to abstract common features to construct such things as scripts. That special kind of memory - episodic memory - and the structures built with it are the core of language processing as it has been developed.”
Human intelligence itself works through connections between separate cells, or neurons, which a person has in his brain. To have a particular experience means that a particular “synaptic connection” has been formed between two or more brain cells. The more often an experience is repeated, the stronger that connection becomes within the brain. Unlike computers which store information in particular places on a disk, human knowledge is not stored in particular brain cells. This knowledge lies in the connections between cells. Which connections are formed is a matter of chance experience. In a sense, therefore, knowledge depends upon a person’s history of past experiences. This knowledge is a kind of composite coding, based on the brain’s neural connections, that takes into account life’s sequential events. The “knowledge” stored in genes is of a similar type. Darwinian evolution turned genetics into a history-based science. Because those species survive which are better adapted to their surroundings, the genetic makeup suited for survival is found in body tissues of animals or plants living today. Over millions of years, geological and climactic events brought changes to the natural habitat and, therefore, to the type of living creatures able to survive. This “story” is told in the DNA that such creatures have at the end of the process.
swallowing the smaller fish
The need to secure food is an important condition of life. Species of animal life are differentiated from each other in many respects, but, most importantly, by their place in the food chain. This aspect of inter-species relations also extends to human society. Certain occupations and professions sit in judgment on others and, in some cases, prey on them. Attorneys are a predatory occupation, hauling people into court and appropriating their substance. Government preys on productive enterprise. Professionals as a group assume a superior relationship to clients. The priest who hears confession is superior to one who confesses. The social worker is superior to the welfare recipient whose case he administers. The doctor is superior to the patient. This superior-inferior relationship arises when one party is meant to judge or “help” another. Honest and open communication does not take place between the two parties, as among equals, but there is instead a professional pose. The psychiatrist knows not to become too personally involved in the patient’s problems. Seeming to “care”, he must not be touched by the patient’s thoughts. The self-consciousness of what he as a professional ought to be doing governs his conduct. It’s like being higher in the food chain and swallowing the creature below.
Some people are attracted to this mode of personal invulnerability. Being a professional means you can skate through interpersonal relationships, changing others without being changed. You are superior to the others. Even without a position, some people try to make themselves superior by judging other people. They gossip among themselves and make unkind characterizations. Each wants to dismiss the other’s point of view as if to say: “What you think is based on an incomplete understanding. I moved beyond that stage some time ago.” Of course, everyone is busy putting each other in categories. We are on top if we control others, but inferior if someone else controls us. We want to be the big fish who swallows the smaller fish, not be swallowed. As self-respecting people, we frantically resist being swallowed by others. We say to the world: “Do not try to understand me.” Once, in a magazine interview, Henry Kissinger was asked to describe in a word the various world leaders whom he had known. He was doing fine until asked to describe himself. With a trace of embarrassment, he replaced: “Er, complex”. Of course, we are all bigger than other people’s conceptions of us; we are all “complex”. No one can or should put us in our place.
Jesus said: “Judge not that you be not judged.” This teaching calls a sensible truce to the game of trying to swallow others. Walt Whitman made a similar statement in his poem, “Song of Myself”. He wrote:
“My final merit I refuse you.
The ability to make truth conscious confers great powers upon a person. It is not always desirable that the truth be known in a situation that is unfolding toward a greater state of awareness. In a competitive situation, if I can expose your purposes, I open them up to attack and possibly stop them from being completed. So, in the rough and tumble of political life, there are continual accusations, hints, and innuendoes seeking out the other person’s vulnerable points. Journalists are always playing this game. When a political candidate makes a speech, the reporters react to things that confirm their stereotype of his candidacy rather than to the substance of his message. To discuss points in the candidate’s speech would be to play his game. To discuss the candidate himself makes him part of the media’s game. What ulterior motives might he have in saying this? Will it help or hurt him politically? All is self-conscious game-playing. The winning posture in politics is to be a candidate of the issues running against a corrupt system. Your own policies have not yet been tried so it is impossible to criticize their bad effects. Your opponent, however, is supported by a “machine”, or is financed by “fat cat” contributors, or has aroused an army of “radicals” and “fanatics”. These developed features of a candidacy make an inviting target to attack.
The political strategist must therefore be skilled in the arts of self-consciousness. He or she must have political antennae which sense what the public is thinking and a mind which knows how to run a campaign so that the currents of public sentiment are moving favorably for the candidate at election time. It would be a mistake to let the candidate peak too soon. Ronald Reagan followed this strategy in his bid for the 1980 Republican Presidential nomination. While John Connally, George Bush, and others beat the bushes on the campaign trail, Reagan, the front runner, laid low. Reagan explained his strategy: “It’s like walking a tight rope or being point man on an infantry patrol. You’re the first one shot at. When you’re the challenger, they’re not always waiting to see signs of slippage. But when you’re the front runner, the death watch begins earlier.” Agreeing, George Bush said: “History is strewn with the bodies of front runners who didn’t make it.” (Ironically, his son, George W. Bush, was the Republican front runner from beginning to end in the 2000 campaign, and also the winner in the general election. The currents of self-consciousness move in mysterious ways.)
In general, the person who identifies what another person is up to, calls attention to it, and thereby forces the other person on the defensive is like a wrestler who seizes his opponent by the legs, lifts him up, and hurls him to the mat. Of course, a skilled wrestler does not wait to be attacked; he goes on the attack. If someone tries to make an expert dialectician self-conscious, he does the same thing back. It’s easy to trip up another person self-consciously by exposing his purposes and thoughts. Questions are asked not to elicit information but to ensnare another person in his own words. The other person then becomes wary of answering the question in an honest, straightforward way; instead, if he is clever, he finds a way out by giving an unexpected but cogent answer that makes a larger point. Jesus was a master of those tactics. The Pharisees were continually engaging him in conversations intended to trick him into making a blasphemous statement. Characteristically, Jesus would “see through” their purpose. To each maliciously intended question, he would pose a counter question which the Pharisees could not safely answer. Jesus used self-consciousness, “swallowing” the Pharisees’ thoughts, to change the flow of the discussion along the lines of his superior view.
controlling the flow of consciousness
Laying one’s cards on the table may not always be the best strategy. In a running campaign or unfolding series of conscious events, one should not allow the purpose to become evident too soon; for coming to the point alters the conscious framework of events. Sometimes the situation is not ready to accept this new fact. For example, if a boy tells a girl “I love you” too soon in their relationship, she might be frightened away. Several dates later, it might be just the right thing to say. For better or worse, making such a statement changes the tenor of their relationship and moves it to a new stage. The new consciousness requires a different set of responses. It becomes grounds for a new situation, with a new awareness and new unstated purposes. An event can progress further if some aspect of it remains unfulfilled. For that reason, one orchestrating such activities may want to control the spread of consciousness moving toward a foreseen end. In Mark, Chapter 8, Jesus forbade Peter and the Disciples to tell others that he was the Messiah; the situation was not yet ready to receive that information. So leaders of large organizations often try to restrict the release of information relating to their enterprise. They have a well-developed sense of timing to bring out the truth in stages. Otherwise, its premature disclosure might inhibit further development of their plan.
Likewise, writers control the flow of meaning in their works. Ernest Hemingway said that a novel was better the more was left out of it. He meant that an author should state facts and let readers provide the emotional response. In other words, the author should leave a blank space in his writings where the reader’s thoughts can enter. Thoughts exist in various incomplete stages. Below the level of consciousness there is semi-conscious awareness from which incipient thoughts emerge. The elements submerged in that state may become conscious depending upon what they suggest to people. A given set of facts will suggest one thing to some people and another to others. Of course, if a thought is stated explicitly, then everyone will notice its point. For effect, a writer can make certain points openly and leave others unexpressed, though artfully suggested. That way, the reader can draw conclusions on his own, which is a more satisfying and convincing way to be persuaded. Although the writer would seem to be manipulating the reader’s thoughts, the effect of such manipulation can be aesthetically pleasing.
In Shelley’s poems, I have noticed that a number of specific images are given and the reader has to supply the unifying thought. While, in one sense, the reader will be thinking about individual images which flash by, the main thoughts are formed as patterns on the self-conscious level. In poetic expressions, artfully contrived specifics may take the place of general statements. The lover might say poetically: “I’ll love you ‘til the seas run dry.” That statement does not mean, literally, that this man is promising to love a woman for eons of time as the waters of the sea slowly evaporate and their sandy bottoms are exposed, at which point he abruptly stops loving her. Rather, it is equivalent to the man’s saying, “I will never stop loving you”, except that it uses specific, colorful imagery and reflects something of a lover’s tendency to exaggerate.
We tend to think of truth as isolated statements making a particular point. Each sentence has a meaning expressed in the internal relationship between its words. In fact, the meaning is also determined by the context of surrounding expressions. Each new thought is worked into the awareness of accumulated thoughts. Jean-Paul Sartre has written that “consciousnesses must be perpetual syntheses of past consciousness and present consciousness.” Each statement is part of a continuing flow of expressions which integrate immediate consciousness with what has gone before. It is interesting to see how a sentence takes meaning from its place within a paragraph. While it is being read, the remembrance of the preceding sentence is still fresh in the reader’s mind. Some of its awareness lingers on, coloring the present thought. The meaning of a sentence is really a combination of its own explicit message and residual awareness from the previous sentences. This double image of present and past expression creates meaning in a fuller sense.
As an experiment, open any book and flip to a page. Point your finger at any spot on the page and start to read. Does that sentence make sense? To a certain extent it does, but the full meaning will become apparent only after all the previous sentences are read. The first sentence in the book should make sense by itself; at least, the reader should be able to comprehend it by virtue of his previous experience. Toward the end of the book, however, one needs to know what was written earlier to be able to understand the meaning. In presenting a message, the writer or speaker should decide which thoughts need to be expressed first. They are ones chronologically or logically previous to the others. The remaining thoughts should flow from them in an orderly way. Nothing should be expressed without its prerequisite knowledge. And so the reader’s consciousness would unfold thought by thought until the entire subject is covered. Learning takes place as the lessons, arranged in order of comprehensible knowledge, are exposed in their proper sequence.
We experience life in many different situations. Each is a key to understanding its type of event. If I am in church, I behave differently than if I am at a sporting event because I realize where I am. Church life has its own kinds of thoughts and activities, as do sporting events. Each day, we move from one situation to another, letting each circumstance color our thinking. Each awareness of context summons a different set of meanings. It will condition the related facts. So meaning is predicated on elements of prior awareness. If a man is very fat, that may color our thinking about him. If a world-renowned scholar tells us something, we assume that his remark reflects a complete understanding of the subject. If a man is a millionaire, he could afford to pick up the tab at a restaurant but probably will not. In humor, it is necessary to realize that a particular story is a “joke” to see its point and know that it is funny. Without that realization, the joke teller would seem a moron. The joke would mean nothing.
“You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.” What does this saying of Jesus mean? It means that consciousness can be an instrument of healing. Sin is buried in submerged thoughts of guilt that keep a person in torment. When Jesus says “Your sins are forgiven”, the sin and the guilt disappear. In Freudian psychoanalysis, repressed experiences from childhood which are responsible for a neurotic symptom are brought to the surface of consciousness to be dissipated. A person who thinks about himself in a rational manner will find a way out of his problems. What is fearful and irrational, which has been haunting a man in his unexamined life, is hauled out into the light of consciousness where its disturbing elements can be treated. Once “skeletons in the closet” are brought out, these obstacles that hold a person back are fearful no more. Persons who are mentally or emotionally ill keep problems bottled up inside themselves. Jesus, casting out demons, achieves a dramatic cure. His call for repentance requires that the sinner first lay bare his soul. His promise of forgiveness completes the healing process.
Some say that a sign of intellectual sophistication is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in the mind at the same time. If that is so, guilty people must be quite sophisticated. The thought “I am evil” involves a more complex kind of thought than “I am good”. Its statement is oxymoronic. I side with myself because of natural self-love. By the same token, I will oppose what is evil. So, how can I simultaneously support or oppose a self which is evil? The two concepts, juxtaposed, do not mix. Therefore, feelings of guilt are intellectually and emotionally disturbing. I can treat evil objectively if it is an external problem, but not if the evil is within myself. This double view of myself and the concept of evil is hard to accept. It is morally confusing. If I am evil, then I am bound to seek a change in myself because evil is intolerable. On the other hand, if I am good, there is no need for me to change what I am doing. I can stay put on the conscious level. Evil within myself prods me to examine myself and find out how and why I need to change. This situation provokes self-conscious thoughts that may bring a cure.
Language has a way of changing. Five hundred years ago, to call someone a “villain” or a “wretch” might have been a true insult. Today, those labels seem amusing. Can “bad” have only negative connotations? A popular song from several years back referred to “bad, bad, Leroy Brown, baddest man in the whole damn town.” From the sound of it, Leroy was rather proud of being bad. He could cheerfully admit to being “bad”, but, perhaps, not to being “queer”. Gay rights may have turned that last phrase around. A politician can admit that he was “ignorant” of something but never that he was “naive” - not unless he needed to admit this to escape some hard-core criminal charge. Then being naive would be OK. Mentioning something bad by its generic name removes the sting that would be felt with a description of details. We can discuss murder or rape calmly. If, however, one were acquainted with the horrible details first and gradually let the idea sink in, perhaps their repulsive meaning would be clear. With repeated use, meanings become unhinged. There is a dynamic of change that comes with conscious activities carried out over a period of time. Thoughts, repeated at some length, become subject to self-conscious corrosion and change.
Note: This is Chapter 9 of the book, Rhythm and Self-Consciousness, by William McGaughey, which Thistlerose Publications published in 2001.
Click for a translation into: