Takeoff on the old Gameboy Tetris B theme.
A news article about a proposed experiment to test that philosophical question.
It does make sense that the behavior of the universe could be explained by interactions between “numbers.” Then anything seemingly paradoxical (e.g., particle/wave duality) is possible. We conceptualize and measure it as specific though un-intuitive physical behavior (both particle-like and wave-like, or string-like, or 21-dimensional, or some such conceptual model) but really it’s just a pattern of the numbers in the “computer”. We instantiate globs of rules to understand things which only really exist mathematically, where there’s not necessarily an “ultimate reality” to any of it, rather just relationships between structures. The universe is a giant cellular automaton, a massive thing similar to Conway’s “Game of Life”.
This is pretty trippy:
You’re watching particles of some other world.
[ And “light speed” in this world is laid bare to us, because a fundamental particle (one cell in the grid) cannot have influence on anything other than its neighboring cells, so information cannot exceed the speed of “light”; “light speed” is equal to one grid cell per clock cycle. ]
I speculate here that “God” is the computer, or whatever the simulation is running in. The “Godhead” is the brain’s perceptual representation of its grasp of the higher-level rules of the computer at the lowest level comprehensible to it, in its most fundamental “language.”
The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley (the chapter I’m on) talks about love of God, devotion to God, et cetera as a commonality across all religions. What is the underlying truth? What is “God”? Proposition: it doesn’t matter. Or alternatively, God is always the unknowable. So God may be solely a creation of our minds, but loving, submitting or being devoted to some principle which accesses a particular way of thinking brings about a greater nobility of thought or freedom from anxiety and a certain way of being in the world.
Logical arguments for God fall short. They are unconvincing or self-referential. They generally take the form of “if God doesn’t exist then <something scary>.” Well, maybe <something scary> is true. Maybe there is no “purpose” (a man-made concept) to existence. Maybe consciousness ends when we die, or is only an illusion, no matter how real it seems. Maybe bad people are not punished somehow. Wishful thinking and a draw towards comforting ideas proves nothing, but all logical arguments for God seem to eventually reduce to these; meanwhile science adequately explains morality or points in the direction of adequate explanations where it doesn’t yet.
Arguments that faith is what we should aspire to because of a recognition that there can be no proof fall short. Faith (at least by today’s definition, it seems to me) is not enough. It may be a force which gives comfort, feeds curiosity, connected with belief (e.g., it is fundamental in that I believe or have faith that what people around me have experienced and communicate contains truth), and which encourages me towards further inquiry, but by itself it seems like a mechanism or vehicle rather than a truth.
The ignorant reject what they see, not what they think. The wise reject what they think, not what they see.
Only perception, an experience of “knowing,” is worth something to me in approaching some truth, here. In other words, faith may bring about a feeling, even a feeling of certainty in some, which they no doubt aspire to (and which I think is an unsatisfactory endpoint), but what can I perceive?
[ First of all, I will say that it must be possible to perceive something in this area, whether or not that something is “real.” We can talk about real-ness later. But the commonalities across the world’s religious cultures and especially commonalities among experiences related to us by individuals across the diversity of their beliefs points to something significant, even if we eventually conclude that it’s an accidental “feature” of the mind. I should be able to have the same sorts of feelings and perceptions that most other human beings can have. ]
I vaguely “perceive” God filtered according to the limits of my logical understanding. Inner vision, emotion, logic, and so on are never enough to perceive what God is, but these senses/abilities try. I propositionally understand God these days as the “computer” which runs our “simulated” universe. The nature of this computer cannot be apprehended in this universe because it is outside of the universe and therefore probably abstract to anything we consider real or of this universe. But still, my imagination tries, because there is no other way of understanding. I visualize brilliant-white interwoven valves, like transistors, going off into the distance across an endless landscape. This is the “computer” which is running absolutely everything. It disappears into the horizon in every direction, and my brain grasps towards the concept of infinity by trying to hold on to more and more of the area covered by these interwoven valves.
[ But this is all just a model. And as such, how much truth does it contain? It is a proposition, pointing at something, but what? So we continue. ]
[ I have been influenced a great deal by certain Science Fiction novels. In particular, Permutation City and the chapter entitled Wang’s Carpets (which was originally published as a short story) in the novel Diaspora, both by Greg Egan. I read these many years ago, but oddly I’m reading articles in the news about experiments being designed now in an attempt to test whether our universe is a simulation. So the idea is entering into scientific and even popular consciousness somewhat. Thank movies like “The Matrix.”]
I believe that every person who has an experience of the nature of God will have that experience presented by relationships with known real things and, in order to be comprehensible, as objects, concepts and attributes connected with things which can be sensed or felt. The brain by its nature tries to make what it experiences comprehensible. This happens in every culture, and so we have many, many contradictory representations of God. Lower-case gods are still a representation of the system they are in (upper-case God, eventually, no matter how much or little thought is given to that ultimate context). [So I’ll call polytheistic systems holders of a tiered model.] These understandings are all simultaneously true and not true. They are true in that they reflect an understanding of reality, and they are not true in that they are simply symbols, which are devoid of meaning when they cannot point the way. They represent a grasping towards truth, but not truth itself.
[ After spending some time on Erowid reading about people’s psychedelic-mediated spiritual experiences (a source for what could be a modern-day Perennial Philosophy), I posit that normally the brain holds onto and presents to consciousness only what is comprehensible; the brain does some amount of thinking which is not comprehensible and which, if it cannot be made comprehensible, is discarded; the “mystical experience” may be an extension into consciousness of that which has not yet been made or in fact cannot be made comprehensible. However, we need to divide “mystical experience” into two categories: (1) Things which are simply incomprehensible to logical understanding, and (2) Things which are spiritual, are “of God”, or present a profound yet inexpressible understanding of reality. I’m talking about (2), here. ]
Now, the big question is still, what is being perceived? Is it something outside of ourselves, or something within? Why would our brains have the apparatus for giving us what we call spiritual feelings, thoughts and perceptions (“incomprehensibleness” poking into consciousness notwithstanding)? There is a scientific explanation you may have heard: God is an evolved principle within complex social societies necessary to promote order and obedience to that which servers the greater good of the tribe. But I didn’t consider this a sufficient explanation. Why not? After all, it seems a convincing argument for some scientists. E.g., Michael Shermer expounded this argument at the beginning of a debate, for the proposition “science refutes God.” The explanation seemed reasonable to me a while back, but from all that I’ve read, now feels inadequate due to its simplicity.
The basic case is this: you have the opportunity to benefit by taking some action which helps your own self, but which harms the rest of your tribe slightly. Nobody is looking; nobody will ever know; you won’t be caught. To prevent such selfish actions (which eventually harm the individual), “God” evolved as a principle implemented by brain circuitry which prevents these situations from harming the collective good, by individuals taking advantage of them. Fear of “God” keeps us in line and serving the common good, even when we individually are harmed. We will even die for noble causes greater than ourselves. [Although reason can arrive at similar conclusions, it doesn’t seem fast or powerful enough. Reason’s certainly not been enough to prevent us from collectively harming our environment.]
Now that I write it and think about it more, however, the argument becomes more powerful, because evaluating “individual benefit” versus “common good” may not be so simple for the brain; it is a complex task. So this leads eventually to the evolution of mental circuitry to think “as God would,” to think as if without the Self as a vaunted object of primary concern. Each individual must therefore carry this brain circuitry, and its invocation carries with it a particular emotion: feelings of selflessness, of subsumption into something far larger than oneself. Taken further, due to the self-contemplative construction of the brain (another topic), this circuit would also be able to create thoughts about the model itself which it is using in its evaluation, so as to refine it. That model (used in a search to find parameters within which to evaluate the model) it builds up is one of nature, of the universe. The recursive model continually strives towards apprehending some “ultimate reality” because the model itself is concerned with collective survival of <something>, be that the tribe, or something larger than the tribe; the recursive model works on refining the model by creating universal understanding within which the model itself works. In fact, it makes sense that this circuitry in ever-farther-reaching and had evolved to consider something greater than simply other people in the immediate tribe. Think back to how people lived in the past, in times of scarcity, farming or gathering what they could, hunting animals and trying to predict their patterns and behaviors, trying to grasp how their own treatment of their land and surrounding animals and resources led to particular reactions and therefore their group’s survival chances. The drive to live in these social groups must have created intense pressure to become good at such modeling. So from here we get the tendency of this brain circuitry to think about life and its environment, extending the sphere of its model (via the recursive model) to include everything that it’s “told” and believes to be true about existence. We ourselves hear about the universe and our deductions about it which science, highly sharpened as our tool, is gaining, and integrate this into our sphere of understanding. For us, our “God circuitry” now must include everything we believe, because it is concerned with understanding the context of everything that is. Think about how conceptions of God changed through time, and across cultures. [E.g., why did the geocentric model die such a messy death?]
It does feel plausible, then, given more thinking about evolution, that God could exist solely as a function of the human mind, that what we are perceiving via spiritual experience is what is “in here” rather than anything that is “out there.” Not to simplify or give up any sense of wonder, it likely exists “in here” as a result of vast meaningfulness in the complexity that is “out there.” That there is something to comprehend (a pattern of matter and energy, to things, not something actually of a non-physical nature) combined with the brain’s searching for understanding this life’s context, gives rise to thought processes which are quite different from those we are familiar with in the everyday. The attempted comprehension feels spiritual, but in this model God does not exist as some kind of intelligent being or force except as by the internally created symbols we place below the “all” in our model.
[ As for the truth or untruth of this model, it clearly contains aspects of both; our task is to separate them as best we can. On the one hand it is plausible; on the other hand it does nothing to tell us what this, the universe, all that is, is “in” or is. To say that spiritual experience is merely a kind of thinking/understanding or language of some part of the mind still doesn’t feel like it’s enough when laid alongside all that I’ve read, yet at the same time we seem to have no tools for resolving this one way or another. ]
It also makes sense that the “language” of this brain circuitry has certain features:
- It is not afraid of individual death; it is hardly concerned with this individual’s (my own) death except relative to its understanding of how this individual is part of the whole. Therefore with respect to my death it generates no emotion of fear but rather one of [profound] understanding within the big picture; a feeling of peace because my death does not, truly, matter to the universal model (“all that is”) that this brain module generates.
- It is concerned with understanding the pattern of life and the universal meaning that this brings. Therefore it generates no emotion of self-worth, because the Self has no worth to the pattern, whereas relative to even the tribe or the world (and certainly the universe) one death loses no hard-fought knowledge in the grander sense, that sense being that in which “knowledge” is what is propagated via DNA and the other machinery by which life persists through eons and eons of time. (The ego will fight this conclusion or will pull back or cling to reality; it is the advocate for the Self, for this body, for this tiny bit of thinking and knowledge contained in it.) Because this module evolved for a certain purpose, under certain conditions and scope of perception of reality, its language does not even contain the “vocabulary” to communicate a feeling of worry as if from the universe’s point of view. Instead, it communicates its understanding of the pattern as that which is life, and the rest of the brain constructs various real-world analogues for understand this, which we incorrectly think of or perceive as being real. For example, life does persist after individual death: the pattern, the DNA (almost all of it) we have in common with each other, and so on, the universe, which is what this model is concerned with, is what stably persists. However, the rest of the brain misinterprets this and becomes convinced that this consciousness (what it, what the ego, is concerned with as being “life”) persists. From this we get inner perceptions that translate to absolutely-real-seeming visions of Heaven and Hell, reincarnation, and so on.
I set out in this post to explore the idea that our infrequent perceptions of God [because logic tells us nothing, and faith is simply a form of positive mindset and curiosity, a vehicle, but which also confirms for us nothing about absolute truth] come from a reality that is a combination of ourselves (the way we understand and envision what we have perceived in the so-called spiritual experience) and some ultimate reality (what we are perceiving, which is beyond any mental model we can make). I started with the assumption that we are actually perceiving something out there, which due to my computer-science background I had envisioned as a near-infinite field of “transistors” that implement or instantiate the universe, and wanted to express that at least one particular scientific argument I had heard for why we think we perceive God, being that it was a useful trait selected for and refined by evolution, felt inadequate to explain the sheer depth, complexity, and compelling-ness of all I have read about mystical (direct) experiences, ego death, near-death-experiences, and so on. That is, science seems overly dismissive of “God,” whatever “God” is. Instead, I arrived at the proposition that evolution does explain this particular yet strange-relative-to-everyday-life feature of our minds not only in the sense that we evolved to perceive something out there, but that the thing we perceive is not God in the direct sense (some intelligent being or force) or in the sense that any model we create of what God is, is true, but that this is simply another way of thinking where normal consciousness doesn’t, usually, dwell. It’s metaphoric. Call it “cosmic consciousness” if you will, but in the sense that your mind has a module which thinks cosmically, generates no fear of death, considers your worth as an individual as being infinitesmally small (if/when it considers it at all), and which seeks to grasp the flow of patterns of things, among them life, which it also can view not as individual agents but as the grand flow of the pattern itself as it persists and changes over time. From this perspective we are much like atoms relative to the ripples in water, or ripples in water relative to the flow of the river (as it empties into the gene pool…) Each ripple comes and goes, but ripples do not cease to exist; nor are we the water, as the term “cosmic consciousness,” as if there is one consciousness divided, wants us to think. That’s just a model. Scale up “complexity” in every possible feature but we are no different. Yet, a part of our minds wants to apprehend the flow, as best it can, and thus we have spiritual or cosmic consciousness— not as something that is out there, but as something that is wholly in here, a way of thinking, understanding, and being motivated.
I also want to explore the possibility in another post that this is not the case, that we are actually perceiving something out there, or a feature of something out there, which is not accessible to the ordinary senses, and is not merely “the pattern” or features of “the pattern.”
Think about how you feel right now, and describe it to me.
That’s metadata. How you actually feel is data.
Your consciousness (CPU or main thread) is constantly switching between data and metadata, automatically. It doesn’t want you to experience the data stream for too long; it is constantly looking for meaning in the data stream and switching over to processing that.
Now give full priority to your data stream, and every time a metadata connection comes in (on a bus from a unit which wants a thought to be examined, that is, processed by your CPU), send a 503 (“Service Unavailable”) response and close it. Gently focus all your resources on data, attempting to increase the data connection’s bandwidth and ignoring all metadata requests, or the thoughts which arise about the data, about the metadata, and so on.
Even the act of sending the 503 should be done in the background; this will eventually become a background thread.
Results: You start slowly (over days, weeks, months, years) becoming more aware of all of the data that is coming in, and gaining more conscious control over the decision module which switches between consciousnesses (perception, thought, another thought, and so on). You notice that many thoughts which most urgently want to be processed (have their priority flag set highest) are related to the so-called ego: they touch on the question “How can I (myself, my place in the world, my family, things in accordance with my values, et cetera) profit from this?” “This” being the object or subject of the thought.
You’ll notice that the thought has two parts, one of which is an idea, another one is an entity which has some relationship to the idea. There are “first-person ideas”, where the relationship is between “I”-like things and other things, and “second-person ideas”, where the relationship is between two other things. For second-person ideas, there’s still an implied first-person relationship of which the ego is highly aware. E.g., when talking about other people, there is a strongly perceived personal benefit to the having had (and then having communicated) the thought. The ego’s determination is often felt; it feels good to talk about others; individuals (and the sexes) have different tunings as to how good it feels to have second-person thoughts. (A feeling is like a persistent thought which sets up parameters in the mental environment.) As for third-person thoughts, because the ego and even the mind at large is not immediately concerned with them, they’re kept out of waking consciousness or given few mental resources. To the extent that third-person thoughts can eventually contribute first-person value, they are allowed; I think that emotional state and mental “weather” (whether the brain has more alpha-wave, theta-wave, etc. frequencies of neural oscillations) affects how quickly the ego shuts down what it deems individual third-person thoughts and the generation of such thoughts.
Another thing you’ll observe: when you want something to happen in your head, your thoughts start making it happen, no matter how abstract the language used to talk about it. This language of “background threads” seems a little silly because your brain is not digital and doesn’t work that way, so how do you “move a thought to a background thread”? But the concept is still useful because language does seem to have an effect via the concrete symbols the brain uses for abstract understanding. Maybe you vaguely or ever-so-subtly change something when you try, without knowing what it is, and the result feels completely unrewarding; this is the ego’s short-term thinking evaluating the sustained effort that would be required for long-term mental reconstruction and not believing it as possible or coming up with a positive evaluation as to that course of action. The ever-practical ego says “don’t bother with this” and “give up, you have better things to do.” It’s also tricky. It will actively try and trick you into giving up, making you forget, and so on.
How do you resolve whether your ego is trying to play a trick (by generating mental, emotional or physically-felt discomfort with the continuation of an activity, which leads to explanatory thoughts validating the emotional state), or whether the activity is worth sticking to? This is a lifelong process, an “argument” or interplay between two or more parts of the brain. The “larger” mind takes a longer time to evaluate and usually knows what’s right, but it has a far quieter voice than the insistent ego, which is concerned with the very short-term; it also seems that no thoughts escape the notice of the ego, which can be thought of, in computer terminology, as a module which adds at least two things: (1) an importance flag, and (2) a “surety of importance” flag.
The above is a simplified explanation of what seems true to me, but what can be grasped and expressed with language is always a simplification.
[ And… ego (in the more noble sense of the word, that by which we’re guided towards “productive” activities and behaviors) is involved here, in this writing, as everywhere. Existing within we social creatures, the default ego deems that thoughts expressible in language, and the retention of “word-ified” thoughts, be given vastly higher priority than thoughts which are visual, emotional, or deal with senses and capabilities which we cannot describe and therefore communicate to others. These thoughts do happen in the sea of all thoughts, but they are let go of quickly. If the ego is a fisherman then such thoughts are thrown back. And so, our faculties for having (catching) them decreases as we modify our nets to avoid them; further, we pollute the ocean with chemicals harmful to these thoughts, yet do not care about this, because we don’t catch (retain, eat) them anyway. This all exists within the process of maturation. ]
My thinking at this point is that consciousness is a changing configuration of attention on the output of various “modules” in the brain. It has wirings (buses) into all modules.
Ego is such a module, which can be trained as the others can. Meditation is a space in which to train these underpinnings of the mind, but it is definitely not easy, in the same way that learning to play the piano (with one’s feet, perhaps), is not easy. But it is more rewarding.
I had a dream that I was dining at a large table with Krishnamurti and his followers, and had the opportunity to ask him a couple questions. Krishnamurti was a spiritual leader who renounced his position with a quotable speech:
I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path.
Everyone at the table was encouraged to ask, and since I had two questions in mind, I meant to ask them both during my turn. I asked the first, but I don’t remember what, in my dream, the second was. Even so, I remember raising my hand to ask additional questions, although after the first two he had told me to slow down and give other people a chance.
My first question had to do with the difference between his style of meditation and the Buddhist/Zen style. I had just wanted him to compare them. The answer he gave: His style “achieved union with the godhead,” he said, which he called by a word: it was something like “mu-mind” but not that. I understood him to mean that within this state of consciousness, one comes to know the shallow and illusory nature of the world we think is real. On the other hand, I’ve come to understand (abstractly) that Zen meditation is about achieving an understanding of reality which does not seek to withdraw focus from sensory input and into an internal mental landscape, but rather the opposite: it seeks to amplify and stabilize focus so as to achieve “raw” knowledge of the perceived world and its reality minus a “layer” of everyday interpretation by the mind in terms of “personal relevance” of what is perceived (the “ego layer”). These two methods, (a) fully withdrawing consciousness from perception, and (b) amplifying consciousness on perception, seem to have opposite characteristics.
What was this about? I had read about Krishnamurti in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, which I finished recently. I then read the full text of his speech, and was left with the impression that he was quite a strange individual, perhaps a product of his (sheltered, atypical) upbringing combined a powerful meditative experience of awakening combined with the rather strange (it seems) nature of the group he was being groomed to lead. But I find myself drawn to unusual people, because they are the ones who most often seem to have something to teach, either through their ideas or by observation. Yet, strangeness makes it harder to relate– the teaching becomes more symbolic.
Truth is a pathless land? It seems to me that truth is a land crisscrossed by paths, all leading somewhere, but where? The well-trod paths have eroded the truth they wind through. Walk on one and you will likely focus on the path itself more than any truth to which it leads or through which it leads. Walk your paths mindfully, and switch among them freely, according to your own will. Wander off of them frequently to see what lies where few have gone. Perhaps all such paths traverse but a tiny corner of truth, and in its mathematical infinity, truth reduces such paths to zero. But this is becoming overly abstract.
Why do people believe things?
We believe because we are weak.
Let me refine that.
We believe because we have limited energy.
Much of what we believe, we believe because we believe we are weaker than we are.
We believe because the elevation of an idea to a belief feels so good. It’s the end of a search.
[ Shortly after I had written the above, I encountered this relevant blog post, Born Again, Briefly, by the s.f. writer Greg Egan, describing his own experience with belief. ]
This was fascinating:
Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, which became a Newsweek cover story…
…counterpointed with this:
This Must Be Heaven, in which Sam Harris debunks it.
Reading the feedback: Despite a lot of junk comments online, there are more strong and rational voices out there than I had thought long ago, now that there are spaces for them to be heard. The death of traditional media forms is like an old tree falling and clearing room for light to shine down and a multitude of new views to start taking root. Small voices, but often voices of great clarity, beating back the fuzzy molds of wish-based thinking.
(In fact, Newsweek announced the discontinuation of their print edition almost immediately after publication of this story.)
It seems that internal experience can be incredibly powerful and compelling, and believe that when we can learn to accept the metaphoric nature of mental hyper-realities as expressions of our own reality tunnels and a playing out of the thinking process (that this is how the brain actually thinks, in the ocean depths below the surface ripples of normal consciousness), we will some day learn how to harness our actual mental capabilities, as they exist before our ego programs clamp down on them, in new and startling ways.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin
Heaven is not “real.” Gods are not “real.” But our cultural ideas about all these things came from people’s actual experiences with what to them are real (filtered through the limitations of language, which is a blunt instrument, and through which experiencers struggle to communicate the reality of what they’ve experienced): landscapes of thought which reveal metaphysical truths that make everyday beliefs based on what we’re told to be true, simply given to us to accept by society around us and which are therefore expedient to believe, or on the conclusions of abstract logic (e.g. word-based thinking) seem vastly distant in comparison. But such experiences are themselves nothing more than thinking, in unchained glory. This is the brain trying to make sense of some aspect of reality, modeling concepts not necessarily bound to three dimensions and time, within a hyper-concrete exploratory experiment different from (because of the feelings of awake-ness/awareness, “reality,” and “conclusiveness” attached, to begin with), but at the same time not all that much different from, dreams.
A decent article on evolution and art (and artists).
Before reading this I felt that “peacock’s tail” combined with theories of evolution of altruism/cooperation combined with “spandrel” (which is limited as stated; we need to invoke exaptation very early on as well), all taken together, created an explanation I was satisfied with. Or rather, provided enough material such that I believed an explanation (of any complexity, perhaps not even expressible-via-language complexity) could be formed drawing from all of these; that belief was satisfactory.
[ In thinking about many things what stands out in my mind is how limited words are for talking about things which are obviously due to a combination of many things, and how attracted theorists are to “simple” explanations.
If any one phrase is worthy of being attributed to me some day, I want it to be this:
No thing is ever only one thing.
Let that guide our thinking. ]
To me art is:
- a form of thought, as is speech/words
- communication: “this is what I am feeling / thinking / understanding”
- showing off we consider valuable and which gives joy/satisfaction to both performer and audience: “look what my mind / my body can do”
- a more complex form of play
Art can also become or gain significant overtones as:
- a profession
- a status symbol
Distilling this down, roughly art has varying aspects of: money, communication, and play.
A thought I had the other day was that I have trouble when creating art for some project. I’m generally not happy with the result. I do better when I am creating art for my own reasons and which involves no other person/thing (i.e., it’s not “coerced”). I would like to make it a principle of responding to any requests of me to make something specific with this statement:
I only create art for myself.
[ Do my own emotions or thoughts “coerce” me into creating art? No doubt. But then there is selfish purpose in art, which is the creation of understanding within my own mind. So it may be self-coerced, but it is less tainted by the desires of others and more likely to contain meaning. Just as thought itself is self-coerced. And here art-making can be largely an extension of thinking. ]
Chaim Potok touched on this theme heavily in My Name is Asher Lev in describing Asher’s difficult relationship with the commercial art world he nevertheless relied on to survive. I.e., he felt loathing for the idea of his art becoming transmuted into money.
I am a fictional character you make up.
I am a fictional character I make up.
I was going to write about a dream that I recently had, and my analysis of the dream, which led to an understanding of something that I considered a useful principle. Something that I had realized as I jotted down and thought about my dream. I felt reluctant to post the details of the dream and analysis here because it contains things that felt “private”, and that led to further thoughts about privacy and identity. The principle is that, what I say to you, “the world,” will become attached to my identity. You assume that, because I am writing in the first person and describing something as if it happened to me, that it is truth, even if the “thing that happened to me” was a dream, vaguely recalled, and that what happened after that was my analysis of the dream. Idle thoughts. Idle visions. Dreams are just thinking. Interesting that absolutely nothing physical happened in the world (apart from particles moving around in my head, and fingers typing on a keyboard). But we become attached to thought. Why is that? “This person had this thought, therefore she is such and such a kind of person.” This is understandable, too, because thought can turn into action. What people say reflects what they think. What they think affects what they might do. A great deal of the way we feel about people is due to the ideas they express. We are overly attached to the creation and management of a self-image, perhaps because we over-value our selves. Yet, it’s hard to see how things could be different.
I thought about how authors of works of fiction were much more free of this particular constraint. If I were writing a novel, I could have my protagonist describe a dream he had had. I could have my fictional protagonist post a fictional dream (on a fictional worldwide network, on a fictional planet…) Or kill someone. Or do something embarrassing. Readers could think what they wanted about the character, but the character “himself” is completely free of concern. He has no future. He has no past. He is completely static and unchanging, embedded in an imaginary world.
What does that imaginary world represent? And how are we all that different? We may like the character, or we may not. He may be a hero or a villain. We imbue him with identity in our imaginations. We want this or that to happen to him. A good writer will “bring a character to life.” But the character himself is not alive. If he dies, we may feel disappointed, or even sad. But we can take a step back and recognize that the emotion is for something inanimate, not real. We have invested the character and the story with personal meaning, but we realize it’s a story, just like any story, which reflects varying amounts of reality. What reality is specifically reflected is not stated directly by the story. It’s up to the reader to find personal relevance, and to let the story advance meaningful thought through its alignment with aspects of reality.
A good fiction writer is drawing from life experience, from some real understanding of the shared reality we all inhabit, otherwise her stories would be uninteresting. Therefore the protagonist’s dreams, thoughts, actions may reflect real dreams, thoughts, actions experienced by the author. Or may simply be real dreams or episodes described accurately from the author’s life. We often say that a novel is “autobiographical” if it reflects a great deal of that reality. But even then, there is that freedom enjoyed by fiction authors, which is the intentional mystery within the writing, because the writing is meant to communicate truth, not to be truth. A story is therefore a space within which to explore ideas, whose consequences are not tightly bound to particular real people in the real world.
(One of my favorite books is Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins, which is said to be the author’s most autobiographical work. Clearly almost every aspect of the rollicking and fanciful story is fiction, but a certain personality is conveyed by the protagonist’s dreams, thoughts and actions: A fictional personality which is supposedly similar to Robbins’ own “fictional” personality.)
When we think further about this, there are many kinds of stories. Fables. Allegories. Allegories which characterize real people, and which have real effects. And all stories, we could say, are things that we learn at least small things from. So of course, the concept of “fiction” is not so simple.
But my points are these: (a) My own identity, in your mind, is a mental construct. That’s not too novel of an idea; it’s easy to realize it. You could probably conceive of the idea of “waking up” from this reality and realizing it was all a dream… (b) Likewise, my own identity in my own mind is also a construct, but a much “bigger” one, a realer one, to me than is anybody else’s identity. That this “I” I experience is a fiction is also not a new concept, even though it’s something I might talk about, at great length, some other time. (We have no reference points, like “waking up from a dream,” for understanding that “I” is the same thing– a construct of the mind. What if you woke up from a dream and your “I” wasn’t there? Or was somebody else’s “I”? Assuming you blinked your eyes all the memories in your head suddenly changed to someone else’s, how would you even know it? Interesting things to talk about, but why not try to experience them? My understanding thus far is that pursuing such experiences are one goal of Zen practice. I had a momentary experience in which my “I” disappeared. It was just for a few seconds, and it wasn’t particularly shocking. I was meditating by concentrating outwards and all of a sudden there was no “I”. Yet nothing else had changed.)
Finally: (c) We play with the concept of identity all the time. We drink to shrink it, to become less attached to it, to inhibit our worries about its preservation. We watch movies and plays and read books to conjure up different identities. We wear costumes or just different styles of clothing. We meditate to try and detach from identity, to become more (and ultimately completely) free of its constraints. Identity is of very great concern to ego; I would guess that the solid awareness of “I” is a “module” in the brain which is used by the ego in its modeling. And we dream. Dreams do funny things with identity.
Back to my dream. Let’s say I’m free of identity. I will say what I want, as if this “I” is the “I” in a novel; I am not attached to it. This is what I jotted down soon after waking up, so the grammar is not my best.
I’m on a bus. A number of us will be riding together, and we want to sit at a table. There are tables on this bus, and a few chairs. At first we spot a table on the ground floor, but then we move to the upstairs area. We find a table, but there are not going to be enough chairs, since one or two more people will be joining us. I go downstairs and ask some women if I can borrow a chair (it’s actually more like a cushion) from their area; I say that if someone comes and needs a chair, I’ll immediately bring it back. They seem a little skeptical and try to tease me a little or give me a hard time, but eventually just let me take the chair. I trip on something on my way out of their area, and bring the chair upstairs.
I’m drawing something with solid lines; a woman is watching along with some other people. I think we’re upstairs now. I take out a ball-point pen which has a thicker ball at its tip and go to make a drop of ink/paint (it’s a paint pen) inside an enclosed area lower down on the drawing, and because the paint in the pen touches the boundary of the surrounding ink, the surface tension of the paint bead breaks and becomes an ugly blob; I no longer have the thin white border of the paper around the paint bead I’d wanted. I shrug to the woman, saying oh well, look what I just did to my drawing… I guess that’s what’s expected when you try to use “paint pens” for something so delicate. I try to put a humorous spin on it to show that I know what I’m doing but that there are just some inherently hard materials, so that even though I’m confident in my abilities, it won’t always come out perfectly. For fun I continue to manipulate the paint bead, adding more paint, “messing up” my drawing because it’s ruined, but I’m just playing / experimenting. What starts happening is that I’m building up an object in three dimensions. The bead becomes larger and larger until it turns into a ball; it is semi-dry and gel-like; it feels like very soft rubber with a just-cured house-paint-like surface. I manipulate the bead and now I’m creating an abstract 3-D weird teddy-bear-like thing, maybe five inches tall. I show it to the woman and say something about the novelty of this. I’m impressed by what’s coming out: this giant “gummy bear,” but not exactly that. Earlier on, I’d commented that I’ve never done anything like this before, and I now have a sense of wonder as the thing is developing, as in, wow, I never knew you could do this with these paint pens! The woman is intrigued, too. I feel attracted to her; she’s cute but feels out of my reach at this point, since I’ve only recently met her. For some reason I feel a wave of attraction and confidence, perhaps triggered by her admiration of my skill and absorption towards the weird thing I’m doing, the experimental nature of it, the demonstration of confidence and skill. I need to look at something behind her, and in doing so put my face close to hers and kiss her near her mouth, just the very corners of our mouths touching. I have the thought, in a flash, that she would welcome a real kiss now, but I decide to wait, to go back to what I was doing, to not break that absorption. I feel good because now I’m much closer to this woman, there is possibility of a deeper connection forming, but I don’t want to focus on that now; I still want to focus on following the art and take her on a journey somewhere, not merely declare that this is the destination. I want to remain in concentration on this creative process and what it represents, to draw her admiration out, deepen it, make the connection more real. I’m not just an artistic man who momentarily wowed her, rather I’m a real being with depth who can sustain this level of curiosity and inquiry over a long period of time. We turn back to the art, together.
Analysis: Confidence in oneself is a very attractive thing, perhaps the most attractive thing, and an aspect of a romantic relationship which is possibly the most important to me is where a woman is attracted to me because of my true confidence and abilities. It takes artistic skill to win her over. Confidence exists in performing artistic activities without fear, demonstrating ability as a side-effect. Good qualities are shown here: curiosity. Fearlessness. So much fear exists in art, but why? But it’s fear of the unknown. Fear of experimental art forms, of fully engaging curiosity and doing something out of one’s own box, which is also society’s box. We are drawn to people who do what is new and novel and challenge our existing conceptions of what is possible with what they have done and will do. There is a certain freshness, qualities of mind of youth, that exist here. Many people can be curious and creative, but their products are often not worth much in the eyes of time: they are constrained by existing forms, by the need to make things that fit in with accepted patterns. I want to be curious and simply not care, which will result in the creation of products of greater value, while still being surprised by what is coming out, because they are generated by a deeper part of me, one that I do not control. So I do not look at myself or admire myself. There is no ego, no joy in identity. I simply create; my body and mind are the things that create, but I am not them. And that draws the admiration of others. This feedback loop makes me want to be my best. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you do not win. But in the process, you always win. And we can never expect that what we create is going to be the same as before. It’s always new. It’s important to do what is difficult, so that our mistakes can be guided into what is new and valuable. To have the confidence to keep going, even after a so-called mistake, just for curiosity’s sake, to see what it will turn into.
There are layers, here. These are the thoughts of my changing “I”, in this small moment.
I have many times read about the illusory nature of “self” versus “other”: What one perceives as “me” and “mine” versus “everything else that is not me” is a mental construct. I know this. Logically this makes sense. But where does this logical understanding get us? Understood abstractly it quickly fades into irrelevance within the day by day concerns of life, our continuous striving and rumination. (See the Einstein quote below. Maybe you get a nice feeling from it for a moment, but then what?)
But my realization is this. We are not completely imprisoned by this manufactured duality. I can give flesh to the abstract idea. A repeated subtle, intentional, push of perception seeking to see something, searching for confirmation of a logical belief/understanding, does have a worthwhile effect.
When I look out at the world, I can tell myself, this is all me. This is my extended body. Just as I can feel my real body and “be inside” it by focusing on all the sensations and emotions that exist in it, so too can I feel the world by focusing on everything I see, hear, sense, understand. When I look outwards, I can have the mindset that what I am doing is fundamentally the same as looking into myself.
Do it. Try it. Try to do it as often as you can. It starts subtly decreasing barriers. All the people around you, they’re not truly strangers, they’re just another part of your self.