Monday, January 9, 2017

A Morning Muddle

     Many persons find early mornings more difficult than the rest of the day. I suppose that’s true of me as well, albeit not for what you’d call a typical reason.

     This morning, after the first self-administration of Cardiac Starter Fluid (a.k.a. coffee), one of my first thoughts was “How can we harmonize Aristotelian essentialism with the fluidity of reality first noted by Heraclitus and the phenomenological insights of Husserl?” No, I’m not kidding: that’s the way my mornings have been trending. Such notions aren’t the sort of controversy one normally reads about in the morning paper. Perhaps that’s for the best.

     This penchant for the most abstract of abstractions has been with me for a long time, but I can’t recall a time when it’s been this insistent, or this powerful. If it’s a consequence of aging, it’s not one covered by the medical journals. Fortunately, it usually recedes when I say my morning prayers.

     The above left me with the feeling that this is going to be a really interesting day...hopefully in a good way.

     The typical American is almost entirely uninterested in philosophy. His concerns are mundane, practical, focused on the bills, the roof, and the wife and kids. If he thinks about them at all, he regards the etherealities of philosophical discussion as gaseous blather. The word philosophy has been so badly abused in recent years that that, too, might be for the best.

     That puts me out on the margins of thought. (It certainly makes my style of conversation less than appealing.) Yet I persist in my conviction that the most abstract of abstractions – the ones addressed by questions such as “What do we mean by real, and how can we believe in the reality of a thing if it’s changing as we watch?” – deserve more attention from the common man than they usually get.

     Consider two relatively recent movies: The Thirteenth Floor and The Matrix. Both of these are founded on exactly such conundrums. They challenged their audiences at a conceptual level; you had to “buy the premise” in order to “buy the flick.” Yet many did so, especially in the case of the Matrix series.

     Another noteworthy movie, Dark City, embedded as its premise that what we call reality might really be at the mercy of others’ whims. That’s goes deeper into the conceptual darkness than the “simulation within a simulation within a simulation within a...” premise of The Thirteenth Floor. However, it has an important distinguishing characteristic: it’s true.

     Reality is being continuously reconfigured as we live it, largely by persons other than ourselves. That some of those persons live near to you – perhaps in your very own home! – doesn’t disturb the validity of the premise.

     An old, low-grade joke runs thus:

     Q: What does Helen Keller’s mother do to punish her?
     A: She moves the furniture around.

     (As I typed that, two other things occurred to reconfigure my local reality: First, I received an “important message” about the worn, tired condition of my underwear...from Victoria’s Secret. Second, it occurred to me that there are probably millions of young Americans who, owing to the “excellence” of their “public” school “educations,” have no idea who Helen Keller was. But that’s a subject for another screed: one that must wait to be written until the serviceman arrives to recharge my sneer-quote generator. All things in due course.)

     We live in a reality whose surface properties are being continuously altered, mainly by others. The alterations don’t touch the metareality beneath us, of course – you’d have to be Althea Morelon to do that – but they do influence our perceptions and subsequent decisions and actions. How, then, do we state definitively anything about reality, even in the most localized sense?

     It appears that there are several criteria:

  • Perception: One must have sensory evidence of the item / event;
  • Persistence; The item or event must have occupied a non-zero, finite space and interval in time;
  • Confirmation: Others who can legitimately be presumed to have witnessed the same item / event must confirm (or at the least, not seriously dispute) one’s perceptions and the recollection thereof.

     Remember this scene from 1984?

     ’Another example,’ he said. ’Some years ago you had a very serious delusion indeed. You believed that three men, three one-time Party members named Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford men who were executed for treachery and sabotage after making the fullest possible confession — were not guilty of the crimes they were charged with. You believed that you had seen unmistakable documentary evidence proving that their confessions were false. There was a certain photograph about which you had a hallucination. You believed that you had actually held it in your hands. It was a photograph something like this.’
     An oblong slip of newspaper had appeared between O’Brien’s fingers. For perhaps five seconds it was within the angle of Winston’s vision. It was a photograph, and there was no question of its identity. It was the photograph. It was another copy of the photograph of Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford at the party function in New York, which he had chanced upon eleven years ago and promptly destroyed. For only an instant it was before his eyes, then it was out of sight again. But he had seen it, unquestionably he had seen it! He made a desperate, agonizing effort to wrench the top half of his body free. It was impossible to move so much as a centimetre in any direction. For the moment he had even forgotten the dial. All he wanted was to hold the photograph in his fingers again, or at least to see it.
     ’It exists!’ he cried.
     ’No,’ said O’Brien.
     He stepped across the room. There was a memory hole in the opposite wall. O’Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O’Brien turned away from the wall.
     ’Ashes,’ he said. ’Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed.’
     ’But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.’
     ’I do not remember it,’ said O’Brien.

     It’s one of the most chilling scenes in a supremely chilling book...and one of the most important, as well. The brainwashing techniques of the Communist nations are founded on nothing else but that plus mass confirmation and repetition.

     As usual, I’m coming at my point in a circuitous fashion. (Why not? I’ve been doing it for a lot of years now.) It’s merely this:

Reality may be changing, but it’s still real.

     That includes conscious attempts to change reality “out from under you,” such as O’Brien worked upon Winston Smith, or the media are attempting to do with the Chicago atrocity of a few days ago. It’s up to you – your perceptions of reality and your firmness of will – to decide whether you’ll allow it.

     And remember.


Unknown said...

I was going to comment on this, but the reality of my morning has been changing so fast, I'm not sure that what I was going to say isn't drifting away before I get it typed. Maybe an hallucination. Thank God there is one thing that is not unreal.
...and I loved that movie "The Thirteenth Floor"

Anonymous said...

Once pointed out to someone that if we do live in 'The Matrix' it makes perfect sense to make The Matrix movie. Then if you try to awaken anyone they'll think you are completely bonkers. You should have seen the look that statement generated.

I think a somewhat advanced understanding of quantum mechanics has warped my brain.