squirrelly man

12th October, 2006

Listened to Mark Hauser interviewed a few days ago about his book Moral Minds. He said:

“…our moral faculty is equipped with a universal set of rules, with each culture setting up particular exceptions to these rules.”

We have, according to Hauser, a biological basis for our sense of morality. Morality as an instinct, common to our species, and cultures tend to contest these impulses in various ways, and in so doing establish identity – the ways it chooses to manage and respond to its collective impulses. This “consciousness at the point of conflict” can scale up to national identity or down to individual identity. I’ve been reading David Bohm lately in preparation for a project and the notion of proprioception (self-awareness), and the thought process being very much connected to judging activities and generating conflict is a theme in his later work – his ideas are that we tend to overthink and complicate our lives, and that we should take a lesson from the other systems in our body. But more on that later.

I understand the exceptions we create in response to our instincts as boundary conditions – something that we can establish a dialectic relationship with – that enable what we have come to understand and identify as selfness, or consciousness by establishing a perpetual conflict – that conflict is the perception of choice when faced with an impulse.

We have to decide what to do, we have become aware of our inner mental processes and a relationship we have with them. We are continually discriminating and triangulating between our inner, moral faculty and the resulting impulse(s), the particular cultural exception(s), and the actions of those we share space with as they navigate the same terrain.

As a personal point of reference, after I heard Mark’s interview I went for a walk and noticed the squirrel activity in the street – gathering acorns. I don’t drive but a friend who does describes Fall as the season when squirrels temp death for acorns.

What came to mind is the fact that the squirrels’ impulse to gather and bury acorns is no doubt instinctual – and from what I gather, squirrels maintain a memory of where they buried an acorn for about twenty minutes (this is debated, I know), and the point becomes whether they are burying acorns for themselves, or for squirrels in general. They apparently mark their burying territory in just a few different ways, meaning that any hungry squirrel finding their self in a burial location would probably realize, instinctively, that acorns were nearby. In addition, the qualities that make certain acorns attractive to squirrels are the same qualities that make the acorn a good candidate to germinate and grow into a tree – so the relationship between oak trees, acorns and squirrels is complex, environmentally balanced, and doesn’t seem to require too much of what we call thinking.

Given the environments that we build for ourselves I wonder what we respond to instinctively, what are the “unconscious”, physical elements of our environment – what generates a response that is palpable but not conscious, and is the unconscious a relationship we have with elements of our built environment – does the unconscious exist at the intersection of our internal (senses, brain) and the external (the elements of our environment)? Everything is physical, right? Perhaps the difference between unconscious and conscious experience is the degree to which conflict is generated – the degree to which we can experience a choice in our response to specific elements within our environments.

I certainly don’t have an answer for this but the idea of our identity and even memory existing as an active relationship between internal and external may be supported by something I read regarding the sensory deprivation experiments by Dr. John C. Lilly – he of altered states fame. Apparently, after several hours in the tank, subjects would emerge without knowing their names, ages, marital status, address, etc… this information would gradually return to them within about forty minutes. Very interesting.

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