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It is a gray rainy day, cold and damp. I am standing at the glass door looking out. I am 70 years old. Yes, that is relevant.

Leaves on the ground, bare trees like leading against the sky, hands on the edge of being numb by the cold. I have my camera and decide to make photographs from where I stand behind the door. How many different images can I frame without moving my feet?

Each of the captures bears the weight of meaning. The leaves are dry, curled and brown. Some make patterns, but most are merely random scatterings. There is no avoiding the match between the internal and external worlds.

I am alone in the world. A lifetime of experience has built up a complex web of neurons in my brain, like interwoven roots. Those connections, alive with electricity, hold seven decades of memory, learning, disappointment, fears, joys and, perhaps more than anything, language. It is the means through which I most interact with the world.

Or so it seems. Yet, it is also imagery that carries meaning. I have been speaking since I was a toddler, reading since before kindergarten, but I didn’t begin making images until I was out of college. I don’t mean snapshots, but consciously trying to find visual analogs of emotional and mental states. Images as art, if that is not too fancy a word.

So, again, through the window, I see the tangle of vines that are axons and dendrites. I see the crisped leaves wet on the ground, their lives and usefulness complete. I see the trees as nudes against the colorless sky, a black-and-white photograph even while in full color. Naked we come into the world; naked we leave it.

The vines are not just a projection of brain-tangle. They are also the way I have come to understand the narrative of my existence. Once, it may have seemed like a simple story line — a plot with beginning, middle and an upcoming end. But the longer I live, the more the plot becomes muddied, clouded, balled like tangled yarn. What was linear becomes a Pollock painting. Where does my remembrance intersect with yours? Where does it knot, where disengage? We met once; which of us recalls? Or perhaps we didn’t.

There is more ahead. I write this as I perhaps begin a new adventure.

Garden

There is a line in Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” that should be a starting point: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find.”

These are two primary foci for our existence: There is the world and there is our mind working on the world. Mind and world, the face and the mirror. The central problem is that the world is incomprehensible, multifarious, immense and unimaginably complicated, self-entwined and raw, while our minds, however brilliant, are puny organizers and pattern-finders. What we believe of the world is what we have been able to make of it, and we are simply not humble enough to recognize the insufficiency.

bee blossomTake something as basic as sight. We look upon the world and take what we see as something “real,” something actually “out there.” Yet, we know that visible light is such a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, that our human vision is essentially nothing more than the chink of Pyramus and Thisbe, the slat of a Venetian blind lifted to see a wedge of the  world outside the window. Other animals are sensitive to different parts of the spectrum, and for them, the world is a different world: The bee sees not the daisy that you or I see.

We know this because human ingenuity has given us instruments that can measure those portions of the wavelengths that we cannot apprehend directly, and proves their existence. But we cannot know them directly: We are too limited. For that matter, so are the instruments.

Also limited are the odors we can smell, the sounds we can hear, the tastes we can enjoy or revile, or, for that matter, the languages we can understand or the names we have for the emotions we feel. And yet, somehow we feel we can say we know the world.

I am constantly amazed at human arrogance in the face of the vast ignorance we daily confront. Perhaps it is unavoidable that we have faith in our senses and our minds, that we believe what we have learned of the world is the way the world in actuality, is. It takes an act of imagination to escape our shortsightedness.

And it is not only the world beyond our skins that escapes us: The conscious mind — that part of ourselves we generally consider to be “us” — is such a small part of what our brains do for us. We are not consciously aware of our guts squeezing the chyme along our bowel, not aware of our capillaries constricting, our irises expanding, our hearts beating faster or slower, depending on the unconscious monitoring of our inner bodily needs. Consider yourself at this very second, sitting or standing. Are you fingers curled? Are you tapping them? Is your head tilted slightly? Are you yawning? Have you sneezed? Did you “decide” to do any of those things? Your body seems to work quite autonomously, and your administration has delegated authority to its constituent parts to act on their own. Let’s face it, you would die if you had to will each heartbeat, each breath, each eye blink: Keeping track of it all would be impossible.

And yet, we have faith in that little voice in our heads that seems to be in charge: It blithely makes assumptions that cannot be justified.

This is not to toss out the little voice: We could not operate in the world if we did not simplify it to our purpose; we would be overwhelmed. We make schemas and function within those schemas quite happily, but are seldom aware of their artificiality.

tres riches heuresA good deal of trouble is caused by our unawareness. In politics, for instance, one side believes in pure capitalism, the other in socialism, but each view is only a schema, and takes not into account the great variability of human want, need, ability, and the inevitability of change, both historical and social. Remember feudalism? Monarchy and aristocracy? These were earlier schema, and sustained over centuries, even millennia. One thing might work better at some point, while its opposite might be more functional at another, neither perfectly, while all are always mere band-aids. No human reality can be encompassed by an ideology. They are all simplifications to the point of absurdity.

take outRepublicans who now believe things diametrically opposed to what they had once believed, think that if they can finally pass the laws they want, everything will work like a well-oiled machine from thence onward. Conservatives, who once championed strong central power, now believe the least government is best. (In reality, they believe in whatever will best preserve their own hegemony and wealth and if that changes, so will their ideal of proper government). But in practice, nothing is ideal, nothing is unchanging and perfect: Politics is always ad hoc. It doesn’t fit into cardboard pint containers like so much chop suey.

Religions, political ideologies, psychologies, even science are all such partial schemata and none can be said to encompass all of existence. It isn’t that we should trash all of them, but rather that we should recognize their agendas. And beyond that we should embrace, enjoy and revel in all that is not contained therein. The universe is vast, it contains multitudes. It is this plenitude and fecundity that ultimately sustains us. No system is enough.

Largest ever galaxy portrait - stunning HD image of Pinwheel GalWhat wakes us to the complexity is experience: travel, reading, learning other languages, meeting other people (as a “thou” not an “it”), education, and most of all, the exercise and strengthening of imagination, which all the previous foster. Openness to the world rather than stricture according to ideology or schema. Pulling our turtle heads into the shells of our small perceptions is nothing but retreat.

And whenever possible — and this is the biggest lesson I have swallowed in 68 years on this round, bubbly planet — to love the things of this world. All of it, helter-skelter, unapologetic and enthusiastic, chaotic, overwhelming, incomprehensible and glorious. And recognize our smallness, our ignorance, in the face of it.

toborposter 2

A friend just asked me what I think will be the ultimate end of the computer.

It’s a good question and although there have been many entertaining science-fiction answers to that question — mostly involving supercomputers developing artificial intelligence to a point the computer no longer needs humans to operate it and thus enslaving humankind — the real cyberuebermensch — what came to my mind was something else.

And that is that the computer — and by extension the whole cyberworld — has no throat. No pancreas, either.

That is, in the eternal division we idiot humans have made between mind and body, the computer is all mind and no body. Not even the beige box can count as a body, when we can download the whole brain on a thumbdrive and move it over to another interchangeable box.

No, the computer is the final version of the mind existing for itself alone.

And that, I think, is where we will finally recognize the limitations of the computer.

After all, why did intelligence evolve? It developed to help our bodies survive. The smarter animals were better able to get food, protect themselves and their young, and know when to move to a new neighborhood when the ripe bananas gave out. In other words, the mind is the servant of the body.

In the computer, however, the mind serves only the mind.

Sometimes our human brains forget this simple fact and think that our bodies exist to cart our brains around from place to place, that it is the function of our bodies to turn the pages in the books, or to push the buttons on our remotes or shuffle our computer mouse around.

Our brains have everything backward. In fact, our brains were created by our bodies to serve them.

One senses a theme: machine carries body

One senses a theme: machine carries body

What can be the function of a brain without a body? To serve only itself, a function that is ultimately trivial, narcissistic, onanistic and pointless.

Because we live in a media-saturated culture, we think that the purpose of intelligence is to amuse us, keep us entertained. We use our minds to fill out crossword puzzles, write books and split the atom.

In essence, we are spinning our wheels. And we invent computers to spin our wheels even faster.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against computers. I love my iMac; I even love the blank-faced golem I face every day on which I write these words.

But ultimately, humankind will come face to face with the problem of being chunks of meat walking around. And the computer, as glorious an invention as it is, is irrelevant to our physical lives.

Oh, I know that our air-conditioning is controlled by computer, and that we wouldn’t be able to fly from Phoenix to Boston without them. The computer is a tool, and a useful one.

But when it comes to the future of the computer, we will have to recognize that mind and intelligence are not ultimately what life is about, and that the computer, which makes our lives both easier and infinitely more complicated, has no voice on the subject.

The expectation that the computer will eventually grow into artificial intelligence is likewise an irrelevant question.

But they have it backwards. Body really carries machine

But they have it backwards. Body really carries machine

Artificial intelligence is hotly debated between those scientists who think the human brain is inimitable and those who think it is merely a mechanism.

They are both missing the point. The problem with artificial intelligence is that it serves no purpose. It is really just one gigantic mega-New York Times crossword puzzle for scientists to play with.

Meanwhile, our pancreases and our throats keep us alive.