• Awakening Soul

A Phenomenology of Mechanism: Paying Attention to Nature's Intentions

"Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,

Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;

So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,

Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence."

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Theologian's Tale (1874)

The phenomena of mechanism, in its broadest significance, is nothing more complicated than a tragedy of timing. It is two ships passing each other in the pitch dark of night, which is the tail end of the modern age. One ship represents the natural evolution of cognition and the integration of experiential dualities; a steady and sure "union of the opposites" - cognition and perception, mind and matter, noumenon and phenomenon, subject and object, inner and outer. The other ship represents our own individual interest in and attention to Nature's phenomena. As the first ship ascends due to natural evolutionary processes, the second ship descends due to our personal cognitive deficiencies which are deeply tied to the pervasive influence of digital mechanism. When Nature welcomes humanity into her warm embrace, individuals in the developed world get cold feet and flee the altar, choosing instead to fixate on their digital screens. Is there any deeper underlying reason for this ironic, yet tragic circumstance of humanity? From our considerations so far, it should be clear that there are deeper reasons for absolutely every experience in the phenomenal world that we otherwise chalk up to randomness, luck, or fate. The entire telos of Nature's perceptible appearance is for us to discover those reasons as concrete realities for ourselves.

We saw before how our concrete experience is structured by a 'cone' of nested ideas, with the shortest timelength ideas at the bottom and the longer timelengths manifesting as we move up towards the tip (this is simply a visual symbol and should not be understood as a literal "cone"). All shorter timelength ideas only have meaning in the context of the longer timelength ideas, and it is that totality of the ideal content - the single, eternal Idea (Goethe) - which structures our immanent experience of Nature's ever-evolving phenomena. How can all of these ideas with different timelengths, some as long as "the last 5000 years of humanity's evolution", structure a single moment of our experience? The most straightforward answer to this question, without going beyond the givens of our experience, resides in the fact that experiential time is not uniform. Hours will feel like minutes to someone who is engaged to Nature in deep cognitive activity, relative to how those same hours will feel to someone merely flirting with her. This 'sped up', more meaningful experience of time occurs precisely because our cogntive activity has bravely risked venturing into a more comprehensive and overarching idea further up the 'cone'.

Always try to remember that we are only working through what is given to our experience without layering any assumptions on top. What we have discovered in our phenomenology so far is also what Albert Einstein developed in a more precisely mathematical form with his Theory of General Relativity. His equations demonstrated that our experience of time will depend on our 'speed' in relation to other 'observers'. If we imagine "speed" and "observers" to be mere abstract measurements or entities which exist independent of the experiencing subject, however, then we have added an unwarranted assumption and have gone beyond the immediate givens of experience. What do we actually know, from experience alone, about our relative motion within spatial dimensions? We know that we only move anywhere when we are either seeking specified goals (or someone who is moving us is seeking their own goals), consciously or subconsciously, which sometimes is the goal of returning to where we were before. So when Emerson observed, "physical distances behind or before us are our images for memory and hope, respectively", he was sticking with what the phenomena of movement in spatial dimensions experientially disclosed to him and nothing more.

Another confirmation of this qualitative relativistic time-experience is our dreams. Everyone who has taken a quick nap with dreams has experienced how, what felt like several hours of rich and meaningful experience, was actually packed into 30 minutes of "normal" clock time. Is one time-experience of meaning more or less "real" than the other? Again, only our own unwarranted assumptions, imposed on the phenomenal states of wakefulness and dreaming, can reach such a conclusion at this point. What we know from the givens is that our time-experience shifts in our daily experience, with the concretely felt time expanding and contracting depending on what degree and mode of cognition we are engaged in. Are we meaningfully and intensely engaged with the phenomena we are contemplating, or are we mechanistically and begrudingly surveying them in our thoughts? Are we thinking in a state of wakefulness or in a dreaming state? There is yet another state in our daily experience where we perceive qualitative duration, but it appears that we cannot recall anything about this particular time-experience - deep and dreamless sleep. What are the chances that this state may be yet another liminal space of our experience?

True to our phenomenological method, we must admit this state remains almost entirely veiled to us. What we do know, however, is that we wake up every morning with continuity of experence from the previous day and a sense of duration passing. Even if we do not dream at all during our sleep, we sense that duration. Otherwise, it would be as if we had immediately woken up just as soon as we went to sleep. It is an enticing mystery that Nature presents to us here, is it not? Every day there is a liminal space we journey through without any recollection of what, if anything, was experienced on that journey, only knowing that some duration has passed and that we return from the journey with some more cognitive vitality than we had the night before. What is it that stops us from ever solving this foundational mystery of daily human experience? Does Nature want to keep this secret all to herself and forever sealed from prying minds? Could the answers to the most important riddles of Nature, guarded closely by the Sphinx, be found within this liminal space of our deep and dreamless sleep?

It is here where we really discover what potential meaning is actually lost in the phenomena of digital mechanism. The latter now works to prevent us, with our own assistance (as we will make clear below), from ever asking these sorts of questions, let alone answering them. Under the sway of mechanistic thinking, our cognitive engagement with Nature never matures enough to even perceive that she is patiently anticipating our proposals to solve her riddles. As we move forward into the 21st century, it would appear to any discerning observer that Nature is growing ever-more disappointed that her patience is never rewarded. Life has always been full of pitfalls, mishaps, and distractions of all sorts which stall our cognitive engagement with the phenomena around us. Yet, now, it is as if time is approaching a complete stand-still. It is as if we are always counting down the meaningless minutes of our days, but the clock hands will barely even budge. The critical point of vulnerability in our perceptive and cognitive processes which digitial mechanism exploits is our capacity for attention. Consider the etymology of this word "attention" below:

late 14c., "a giving heed, active direction of the mind upon some object or topic," from Old French attencion and directly from Latin attentionem (nominative attentio) "attention, attentiveness," noun of action from past-participle stem of attendere "give heed to," literally "to stretch toward," from ad "to, toward" (see ad-) + tendere "stretch," from PIE root *ten- "to stretch."
Rare in English before 17c. Meaning "consideration, observant care" is from 1741; that of "civility, courtesy" is from 1752. Meaning "power of mental concentration" is from 1871. It is used with a remarkable diversity of verbs (pay, gather, attract, draw, call, etc.). As a military cautionary word before giving a command, it is attested from 1792. Attention span is from 1903 (earlier span of attention, 1892). Related: Attentions.

We can discern above that our attention is inseperably tied to our intention, as the latter motivates what aspects of Nature we give our attention to. Our attention is really the first intentional cognitive activity we manifest in the world, prior to any systematic sense-observation or logical reasoning. Our intention manifested through attention first makes our individual activity a force of nature, so to speak, which begins integrating our individual qualities and talents into the phenomenal world at large. It is through this attentive activity that we announce our cognitive intentions to Nature; that we begin making our proposals to her. We must keep in mind that all of these activities mentioned are concrete processes which manifest concrete results in the world content that we and others can perceive, if and only if we know to actually look for those results. The following image gives us an illustration of what is occurring constantly and pervasively in the phenomenal world through our intentional and attentive activity. We should observe what occurs when we shift between attending to the image as a whole and, alternatively, when we attend only to one dark 'pac-man' circle.

The upright white triangle manifests in the phenomenal image only when we first intend through our attention that the spheres and the underlying upside-down triangle be complete images. With that intention for completeness of meaning, the white triangle appears as the foreground to the background of the full black circles and the contiguous upside-down triangle. Although it is somewhat difficult after knowing what occurs, we can try to only focus attention on the black 'pac-man' circle and see how the white triangle disappears. This exercise makes clear that the white triangle is merely a perceptual symbol for the meaning we first intend for the image to possess as a whole. It will seem to our immediate perception as if the white triangle was "always there", but that just indicates how deeply subconscious our attending-intending activity is currently buried within us. If that activity were more conscious, then it would be perfectly clear that our own meaningful activity precedes the perceptual structures, not only with figures such as the one above, but with every phenomenal appearance in Nature.

Now let's also consider the etymology of that word which is the subject of this essay (as a noun) - "the structure of a machine, engine, or other contrivance for controlling or utilizing natural forces... a mechanical contrivance or agency of any kind". There is nothing new about mechanism as such. We can see that the meaning of mechanism is quite broad and there are many parts of the human bodily organism which fit into this broad meaning. What is peculiar about mechanism as it manifests in modern digital technology, however, is its ability to completely capture the cognitive process of attention. This process of attending to phenomena sits at the threshold between our subconscious (deep sleep; dreams) and conscious (waking) cognition. It mediates between the subconscious instincts and rational thought (or logical reasoning); between the archetypal forces of darkness and lightness. Through our capacity for attending to the world content, thereby manifesting our intention to truly know Nature, the human soul extricates itself from the dark flow of instinctual content to shed light on specific content that it was previously merged with. It is that light which allows any distinction between our sense of "I" and the world content around us, and it is that distinction which, in turn, allows an inner thought-life and memory to develop. However, there are two sorts of attention we also need to distinguish here:

Things change according to the stance we adopt towards them, the type of attention we pay to them, the disposition we hold in relation to them. This is important because the most fundamental difference between the [brain] hemispheres lies in the type of attention they give to the world... The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world: we are, literally, partners in creation. This means we have a grave responsibility, a word that captures the reciprocal nature of the dialogue we have with whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves... Hazlitt wrote: "When I was a boy, I lived within sight of a range of lofty hills, whose blue tops blending with the setting sun had often tempted my longing eyes and wandering feet. At last I put my project in execution, and on a nearer approach, instead of glimmering air woven into fantastic shapes, found them huge lumpish heaps of discoloured earth … Distance of time has much the same effect as distance of place … It is not the little, shimmering, almost annihilated speck in the distance, that rivets our attention and ‘hangs upon the beatings of our hearts’: it is the interval that separates us from it, and of which it is the trembling boundary, that excites all this coil and mighty pudder in the breast. Into that great gap in our being ‘come thronging soft desires’ and infinite regrets."
- Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary (2009)

I bolded the words above to highlight that it is the liminal spaces of perception that grab our attention and disclose meaning. The strictly 'left brain' horizontal attention focuses on the "almost annihilated speck in the distance", while the 'right brain' vertical attention, which integrates the 'left brain', focuses on the holistic qualities of meaning embedded within the spaces of each and every perceptual structure. The latter qualities bring what only appears remote and distant into our immediate vicinity by perceiving how the meaning living within us unites with the meaning disclosed through the phenomenal perceptions. The experience we first separated into dualities from the organic whole through intellect is reunited through our attentive and holistic Reason without losing the resolution attained by the separation. Keep in mind, all that is written above is simply another formulation of what we first discovered as concrete realities through our phenomenological inquiry. So, digital mechanism enters into the deep threshold cognitive activity of attention and renders the holistic right brain 'mode' of attention subservient and practically non-existent to the forever fragmented 'left brain' mode. How does this unlawful trespass occur?

Focused attention, of the sort commonly found in contemplative and meditative practices, is a tool for our cognitive activity to constrain its own endless horizontal thinking by deepening it. This deepening is a dilation of time-experience which moves our cognition up into the realms of the overarching, holistic ideas which structure that experience. Mechanistic thinking is the exact opposite - it takes pride in its ability to absorb more and more ideal content with less and less thinking through the content. That is what the mere mechanical mind labels as "efficiency". The person who is held captive to mechanism in this manner may watch ten times as much content on their mobile phone in one day than the deep thinker manages to perceive while reading a book over a few days or weeks, but it's also likely that very little of that digital content is being attended to carefully, absorbed into living thoughts, and made accessible to long-term memory. Instead, this 'food for thought' is shed from our living cognition, as dead skin is shed from a snake, almost as soon as we manage to digest it.

When we are depressed, anxious, isolated, ill, or wounded, it is that living cognition which treats the underlying root cause as well as the more superficial symptoms. Even our intellectual reasoning, accompanied by genuine attention-intention, can bind a massive wound together long enough for it to heal. Digital mechanism disrupts this natural healing process by unnaturally keeping our thoughts separated from our attention, our attention from our intentions, our intentions from our innermost feelings, and our feelings from our innermost desires. It fixes us in our current limited and fragmented perspective, and it also leads us to assume that what is revealed from our current perspective is the full extent of Reality itself. Even if we understand that our immediate perceptions are not the full Reality itself, we will assume that what little can be gleaned from those perceptions with basic horizontal thinking exhausts its meaningful content. To be clear, this prejudice occurs with or without digital technology, but it is especially difficult to recognize and address when the content is viewed through these mechanized mediums.

From our considerations in this essay, the pathological phenomena of mechanism could be summed up as a general failure to ask questions. It manifests most acutely when our holistic attention is thrust down into fragmented digital pictures of what people who we "follow" had for dinner or what books they are claiming to read; of viral memes which claim to capture deep "wisdom" in a few prosaic words. The cure to this pathology of mechanism could be summed up as Self-knowledge. But, both of those abstract summations are generally counter-productive, since they rely on the same mechanistic mindset that they are claiming to critique. The same logic applies to blanket policies of any sort, targeted at materialistic desire, but conjured up with little thought and imposed on the population under the guise of "environmental protection". These policies seek quick and dirty "solutions" by coercing its targets into an 'arranged marriage' between Nature and cognitive activity. As Barfield rightly observed, "those who mistake efficiency for meaning inevitably end by loving compulsion".

"Language is the storehouse of imagination; it cannot continue to be itself without performing its function. But its function is, to mediate transition from the unindividualized, dreaming spirit that carried the infancy of the world to the individualized human spirit, which has the future in its charge."

- Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction (1953)

What Barfield says above about language is just as true for our perceptions of all the natural phenomena which surround us. They are Nature's storehouse of imagination and she desires to put her future appearances in our charge. Now, we have some critical knowledge of how our perception and cognition function in our immanent experience, and we also know why we have engaged ourselves in this phenomenology to begin with. It is because the careful, precise, and deeply thoughtful journey through these phenomenal appearances of Nature is coming to understand the epidemic of digital mechanism which plagues her and, at the very same time, coming to apply that understanding in the goal of saving her appearances. It is a cure which many shall seek, but very few shall find - not because it is so difficult to discover - but because it remains so close to us at all times. This cure is immediately 'behind' all of our knowing inquiries, but it is veiled by our own lack of proper motivation and attention. We have completely forgotten all of our manners and our etiquette when encountering Nature; we have forgotten how to speak to her with poetic diction. We can easily perceive this rudeness when we consider the state of modern science today.

If one were to propose a scientific theory which seeks explanations for natural phenomena anywhere above the immediately visible atmosphere of the Earth, the chances are high that this person will be ridiculed and their proposal dismissed before any of the substance is even considered. We refer to this attitude as "closed-mindedness" and that is because it is quite literally a foreclosing on all potential thinking capacity. The ancients perceived and spoke of spiritual intelligences in the starry heavens above who influence natural phenomena and we now call them "primitives" for doing so. They perceived extra-terrestrial and extra-solar influences on the phenomena surrounding them, from the planetary alignments and the Zodiacal progressions. We, in our turn, perceive many influences that they could not. We call these influences "gravitational", "electromagnetic", and "nuclear" forces between "subatomic particles" which allow the latter to act on each other "at a distance". Sometimes, when the phenomena naturally goes beyond our current intellectual understanding, we label these influences as "dark" or "spooky". We call them superstitious, and they call us superstitious right back.

Their justification for that label, however, is much better than ours. For them, the flowers of logical reasoning and scientific cognition had yet to blossom. We, in stark contrast, have experienced its fruits and still hold to our materialist and reductionist superstitions out of pure inattentiveness, convenience, and overall apathy. Humanity risks losing those fruits if it, through each of its individual members, fails to manifest its intention to continue evolving with Nature through a deeply thoughtful participation in her appearances. To right our ship and remain connected to Nature's ship is nothing more complicated than syncing our temporal cognitive rhythms with hers. It is nothing more complicated than treating all of her appearances like answers to deep questions which we have not thought to ask her yet. The cognitive activity that we fear is most time-consuming and difficult is actually what makes experiential time accelerate and what makes all of our daily tasks so much more easier to accomplish, by making them all the more rich in meaning. To avoid becoming what we all too often perceive ourselves to be - lifeless machines - we only need to start Thinking.

"Straightway to his feet he started,

And with longing look intent

On the Blessed Vision bent,

Slowly from his cell departed,

Slowly on his errand went.


Thus his conscience put the question,

Full of troublesome suggestion,

As at length, with hurried pace,

Towards his cell he turned his face,

And beheld the convent bright

With a supernatural light,

Like a luminous cloud expanding

Over floor and wall and ceiling.


Like prisoners from their dungeon gloom,

Like birds escaping from a snare,

Like school-boys at the hour of play,

All left at once the pent-up room,

And rushed into the open air;

And no more tales were told that day."

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Theologian's Tale (1874)