I’ve become intrigued with the idea that the fundamental experience of being alive has been changing over the course of human history. I don’t mean basic changes like we’ve got more stuff or less hunger, but rather that the very nature of how we perceive and conceive of the world around us is shifting. You might recall my musing about a writer who argued that human beings were not even conscious 3000 years ago. Or my conception that as we’ve become more assaulted by distractions like phone calls and email alerts we’ve become less able to focus on the creation and enjoyment of ornamental art.
Today I came across a relevant section in David Byrne’s “How Music Works.” He notes…
Marshall McLuhan famously proposed that after the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, we shifted from an acoustic culture to a visual one. He said that in an acoustic culture, the world, like sound, is all around you and comes at you from all directions at once. It is multi-layered and non-hierarchical; it has no center or focal point. Visual culture has a perspective—a vanishing point.
I’m not sure I totally buy this. Sound isn’t exactly “everywhere” – we can tell if a sound came from our left or our right; we can tell if a sound is coming from far away or close. And I’d even say there’s a certain hierarchy to sounds. Loud or novel sounds demand our attention more so than softer or common ones. (Of course, maybe that’s just my visual culture trained brain imposing a hierarchy on acoustic culture.) Nonetheless, I agree with the gist – the acoustic world is much more ephemeral and ghostlike than the visual world of objects. The acoustic world is harder to define, which is Byrne’s next point.
McLuhan claims that our visual sense began to get increasingly bombarded by all the stuff we were producing. It began to take precedence over our auditory sense, and he said that the way we think and view the world changed as a result. In an acoustic universe one senses essence, whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies. He claims that in a visual universe one begins to think in a linear fashion, one thing following another along a timeline, rather than everything existing right now, everywhere, in the moment.
Again I have some small qualms with these statements but the point is made. Certainly we seem to live in a world obsessed with defining things. One need look only at genres of music; people don’t just listen to pop music, they listen to “West Coast post-modern indie pop.” (And they have no use for anyone who doesn’t!) The argument some would make is that we’ve gotten so obsessed with defining things that we no longer really experience them.
We’re so used to the hierarchy of the visual universe that it’s hard to imagine life without it. It seems like such an essential aspect of our life experience that we presume it must be innate – built into the brain. But I recall neurologist Oliver Sacks observations of a man who – after being blind his whole life – regained sight. It wasn’t really a gift; he could see but he struggled to comprehend what he saw. I discussed this in my old acid logic piece “Making Sense of the Senses.”
With the cataracts gone the outside visual world flowed into Virgil’s brain, but he could not map what he saw to objects he had only experienced with his other senses. During Virgil’s initial moment of sight…
… he had no idea what he was seeing. There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of the blur came a voice that said, “Well?” Then, and only then, [Virgil] said, did he finally realized that this chaos and light and shadow was a face — and, indeed, the face of the surgeon.
Sacks contemplated the dilemma of this moment.
… when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for 45 years — having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long forgotten — there were no visual memories to support a perception, there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them.
After regaining sight, Virgil struggled with seemingly basic components of seeing. He could see all the elements of a tree — the leaves, the roots, the branches — but had difficulty combining them into a single object. He struggled to understand shapes. Movement baffled him. He had to practice looking at household objects from different angles to gain the understanding that they were one single thing. And his eyes would fatigue much faster than a normal person. Eventually, Virgil lost his vision a second time, though the exact cause for this is unclear.
McLuhan might have argued that Virgil was at the center of a devastating collision between the visual and non-visual universes.
I’m taking pains here to not insinuate that one way of observing the world is better than the other. But I will say there’s a part of me that yearns to escape the endless defining and categorization that seems built into modern life (and often passes for some kind of intellectual activity when it’s more often mere mental masturbation.) I’d like to experience things more simply and fully. To better experience the essence of things.
I’d like to think I’ve become less materialistic over the past couple years. By this, I mean less attached and in need of stuff. I’ve even made a point of getting rid of a lot of the crap I’ve been dragging around for years – albums, cassette tapes, VHS movies, comics and mummified heads of dead hookers. And I really feel “lighter” for it.
The Eckhart Tolle book I was reading recently was against the amassing of crap. The book’s argument against stuff was the predicable Buddhist argument, that you’ll never have enough. You’ll never feel as if you’ve got everything you need. Predictable though that may be, I think it’s basically correct. You really don’t need much in this world (especially now that most entertainment products end up free on the web anyway.)
But the Tolle book touched on a point that I hadn’t really considered. It’s not the wanting and needing up stuff that drives you crazy, it’s the wanting of objects. Objects could be physical things but they could be more ethereal. They could be skills or ideas. And while I’ve gladly forsaken most stuff, I still chase after skills and ideas. I still read a lot, I still work on becoming a better musician, composer, polymath, thinker. But will that ever be enough? Will I ever feel like I’ve achieved my goals in these areas? Probably not and that’s not really news to me. There’s a certain amount of acceptable yearning built into any pursuit. But I have to concede that while I’ve been looking at the vast hordes or materialistic scum out there and feeling superior to them, I’m really not superior at all.
Lately I’ve been reading a book titled “The Science of Evil,” written by neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (the cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen, the actor who plays “Borat.”) The book is a look at what’s known about the brains of people who lack empathy – psychopaths, narcissists, autistics etc.
At one point in the book, Baron-Cohen mentions the recent development of an oxytocin nasal spray. Oxytocin, my erudite readers might recall, is a hormone produced by the human body and is associated with calm, loving feelings. We get a dose of oxytocin after sex or close contact; mothers get a dose during birth and while breast feeding their children (presumably this increases the mother/child bond.) It’s been termed “the cuddle drug” and there is now a nasal spray version. This article looks at the idea of troubled couples using it too smooth out their relationships.
Baron-Cohen discusses the possibility of the spray being used by people with low empathy – people who might commit some kind of hurtful crime. In essence, he’s proposing that low empathy individuals be encouraged to feel. I have to wonder whether we will see this scenario: a violent offender, perhaps a psychopath, is ordered by the court to use the oxytocin spray. Will civil rights groups then argue that, by forcing this person to feel, the law is mandating that the person change something essential about themselves, to become someone they are not? Do we have a right to maintain our essential character?
Of course how essential can our character be if it can be altered via the ingestion of a chemical? Must we confront a more disturbing possibility, that we have no essential character at all and our “selves” are merely the fluctuating interactions of the various hormones and neurotransmitters that travel throughout our body and brain?
When I think about the core argument made by Eckhart Tolle (and Buddhism in general), I think it would break down to this: you are insignificant. You are a meaningless pee stain in a moldy corner of the universe and your life will ultimately be flushed down the toilet of history. You are nothing.
Tolle and many Buddhists would probably disagree with my framing of their views but I think that’s it in a nutshell. You might ask, “How could such a philosophy hope to have legs? How could that ever appeal to people?” But I get it – in essence this philosophy says, “None of my problems really ‘matter.’ The fact that I might get fired for spilling coffee on my bosses suit? Meaningless! My general sense of dissatisfaction with where I have ended up in life? Not worth worrying about. Even something heavy like my wife dying of cancer – ultimately insignificant and simply how life is meant to roll out. I might as well go to the park and smell the flowers.” I can certainly see many burdens being lightened by subscribing to such a viewpoint.
It’s a very difficult viewpoint to take of course, because we want to feel that we matter. We want to feel that our toils and tribulations serve some greater purpose. I see this a lot related to art. As I’ve mentioned I’ve been doing some exploration into the world of using social media to promote art projects, be they novel writing, music, film etc. And I see a lot of people constantly tweeting about how they are working on their novel, or how they wrote a song, or some weird new short film. People really tie their identities – their egos – to their artistic output; believe me, I did it for years, hell, I’m still doing it. It’s nice to think that after whatever shit you’ve dealt with in life you can point to something you’re proud of and say, “I did that. Fuck off world!”
But, if you’re going to take Tolle’s advice, you have to release your pride in those accomplishments. You have to give credit for them to “the universe” or some such. And that’s not an easy thing to do.
Of course, it is clearly true that you can’t take total credit for any art project. Take a painting. Obviously you didn’t create the paint or canvas from scratch. And your abilities to paint are derived from the years of development in painting which other humans have contributed to. You’re, at best, taking an established technique and putting your little spin on it.
I actually find thinking this that way makes me want to get more radical and experimental in art (in my case music.) After all, if this music isn’t “me” (e.g. if my ego’s attachment to the music is limited), why not get crazy? Why not get wild? Why not throw it up in the air and see where it lands?
This actually might explain the influence this kind of thought had on mid 20th century artist types who seemed to place the creative process into the hands of chance – Jackson Pollack and John Cage come to mind.
As I’ve repeated over and over around here, I’m not a spiritual man. So when I hear hippies and assorted scum argue that “everything is connected” I’m liable to scoff at them and set them on fire. Nonetheless, I find when I think about reality, there’s no denying there is some truth to this. We objectify the universe; by this I mean we label and set boundaries for many of the objects we experience in reality but where those boundaries begin and end is vague. Where does you hand end and your arm begin, exactly? Where does a cloud end? And, if we take this down to a sub atomic level you could ask “Is this sub atomic particle part of this book? Or is it a part of the air next to this book.”
We perceive things as objects, or perhaps more correctly, we perceive* things and our brain then imposes object definitions on them. But those definitions and boundaries are man-made; they don’t exist. Thus you can fairly argue that everything is connected. You could also argue the inverse – that things are much more separate that they seem, ultimately breaking down to the tiniest possible particles. At that point the argument seems meaningless.
* It’s worth noting here that our perceptions are limited. We don’t see the full color range, we can’t hear all sounds etc. So our “reality” is limited to what we sense, not what is actually there.
Presuming everything is connected opens up some interesting thought streams. I’m quoting here from the Eckhart Tolle book I’ve been reading, “A New Earth.” (Page 276.)
There are two reasons we don’t see this unity… One is perception, which reduces reality to what is accessible to us through the small range of our senses: what we can see, hear, small, taste and touch. But when we perceive without interpreting or mental labeling, which means without adding thought to our perceptions, we can still sense the deeper connectedness underneath our perception of seemingly separate things.
To perceive without any added thought seems like an impossible task, but it’s an intriguing concept. Would this lead to a completely different perception of reality, one where we sense the “deeper connectedness”?
And could we use the power of this perception to score with babes?
As people probably know, Rand Paul recently filibustered on the Senate floor, raising hash over the possibility that military drones could be used against citizens in the United States. (Some might say he “droned about drones.”) The possibility of such a thing occurring seems unlikely, though not impossible. (As Attorney General Eric Holder concedes, extenuating circumstances – like preventing another 9/11 attack – could allow drone use.)
But I’m glad Paul is bringing attention to drones; I’ve found myself disturbed by their use though I have a hard time ascertaining why. Certainly, when one hears of a drone strike in Pakistan or Afghanistan that takes out a terrorist but also several innocent victims it’s not good news. However, that’s not a problem specific to drones – the same thing has happened via plane-launched missiles or bombs or even in close combat. That’s the issue of collateral damage which – while disturbing – is hardly new.
Maybe what worries me about drones is that it seems they could be the first step towards a robotic military, a military where the fighting by “our” side is done only by machines, with no risk to our soldiers or civilians. You might say, “Wil, what’s the matter of that? We’ve been striving for years to protect our troops. A robo army would be the culmination of that dream and spare so many mothers and fathers from the shock hearing the worst news imaginable.”
But, I wonder, does having a robo-army make it easier to go to war? Does having a flesh and blood army ensure that we have “skin in the game” so to speak, preventing us from too easily making the decision to go to war. (You could reasonably argue that it was the U.S.’s infallible belief in the overwhelming superiority of its military that partly led to the disaster of Iraq.)
I’m reminded of course, by an old Star Trek episode, “A Taste of Armageddon.” In this episode the Enterprise crew discover a world populated by two warring nations. Instead of using actual weapons, these cultures play computerized war games that track virtual warfare. Upon the completion of the “attacks”, citizens on either side who have been determined to have been killed are sent to death chambers where they are disintegrated. These aliens argue that this kind of warfare protects them from the chaos and destruction of “real” war. Captain Kirk disagrees; he is convinced that the ease of this form of war has made the aliens too complacent to end their battles (which have been going on for eons.) Kirk angrily destroys the computer system that allow the process. His alien host is shocked. “Do you realize what you have done?” he asks Kirk.
Kirk’s reply is one of the most memorable bits of dialogue from the show’s run:
A while back I had a post featuring Ray Bradbury’s thoughts on education. In a nutshell, he was down on college and pro library. Since his opinions mirror mine, I deemed him quite wise.
It turns out there is a web site, a book, even a movement, that carries forth the same views. The website is called uncollege.org. (The book is linked off it.) Its argument is, fundamentally, that college is a rip off and if you want to get educated, just go out there and learn. Good stuff.
Of course, education has never been about getting educated, it’s been about getting a piece of paper that says you’re not retarded and also giving you the opportunity to form “connections” with like minded scum who can then go about destroying the world. As far as that goes, higher education has been quite successful.
I’ve mentioned how years ago I had an argument with my then girlfriend about how to best aid charities. My argument was that the best thing you could do is take a high paying job and give a substantial portion of your income away (as opposed to taking a low paying job with a charitable org or NGO.) This idea seems to be gaining steam as seen in this page for the “Earning to Give” movement.
For all of the reasons that donating can be extremely effective, earning to give is too. The opportunities to make the world better through donations are enormous. If we take the salary earned by a fairly typical UK banker over their life-times, and assume they choose to give half of it away (leaving them still very well off) they end up able to distribute more than 600,000 malaria nets. That saves more than 100,000 lives.
The main point here isn’t that this is an ideal way to solve the world’s problems but rather that, in any argument I have with a girlfriend, I am alway right.
An interesting point I find floating around in Eckhart Tolle and others’ writing has to do with the notion of striving. We seem to live in a world that places great value on striving and struggle. For example, if you ask two people what their plan is for the day and one answers, “Well, I might got the beach and read a book. Maybe watch some old horror movies. But first I’m going to take a nap.” and the other says, “Well, I woke up early for my jog – I’m in marathon training – and then I studied for my pre-law class. Now I’m running of to work and later tonight I’m going to stop off at the orphanage and nourish the orphans back to life,” we are programmed to believe that the second person is a better, more valuable person. Because they are “doing something with their lives.”
This attitude is built into our modern culture, particularly – and I hate statements like this but it’s clearly true – American culture. We are a nation of strivers or at least a nation that reveres strivers. We value struggle. We worship people who tackle adversity. George Washington. Lincoln. The greatest generation fighting the Nazis. Martin Luthor King. Rosa Parks. (This attitude probably goes back to the Puritans and their life-is-only-to-be-endured ethos.)
This seems so built into our DNA that it’s hard to imagine people who aren’t addicted to struggle the way we are. But I’m reminded of my visit to Morocco several years ago. Like a lot of Mediterranean cultures, people there seem comfortable chilling out in the afternoons. Grabbing coffee, chatting with friends, taking what the Spanish would call a siesta. I remember walking into a restaurant one burning hot afternoon and having to wake the waiter up to order a much needed Coke. (Man, that Coke was awesome too – I can still taste it.) Here was a guy who was comfortable not striving.*
* A caveat here: Morocco is a Muslim nation and struggle does seems to be a big part of the Muslim ethos so I’m probably oversimplifying things, but in the public sphere of Moroccan life I did not see the kind of struggle and striving you see in America and similar nations.
The first world’s comeback to this would be “But that’s why Morocco hasn’t accomplished anything whereas the first world, particularly America, has been to the moon, teased apart the mysteries of science, given the world movies, Computers, music etc.” And, yeah, that’s all true. But I’m not sure that really matters in the long run. And I think we may have driven ourselves crazy in the process.
My main point here isn’t that struggling is bad, but that struggling simply to struggle, struggling because struggle is revered and honored, is bad, or at least takes a toll on the individual. And I can’t help but suspect that if everyone stopped struggling and chilled out then we wouldn’t have a lot of the problems everyone seems to be struggling with.
Lately I’ve been musing on the following ideas related to consciousness and free will. Our conventional view of “will” going back thousands of years is that we are, on some level, mental or even spiritual beings and that is where thought originates. So this mental spirit thinks “I need some coffee,” and somehow that thought is transmitted to our brain which orders our arm muscles to pick up the coffee cup. Now, in modern times, we’ve dismissed the spirit component explicitly (well, some of us) but we still think that’s a pretty good approximation of how things work (or maybe more correctly, we don’t really examine the process at all, perhaps in fear of what we’ll find out.)
Modern science does indicate that there is a pretty direct correlation between thoughts and brain activity. By this I mean, you think a thought and brain cells send electrical signals to other brain cells and ultimately other parts of the body. But those nerve firings are physical processes bound by the laws of the physical universe, meaning things can’t just suddenly move or send electrical signals by themselves. So we have a couple options to explain this. One is we are all mental, non-material beings and we are firing our nerves off with a kind of telekinesis. I’m dubious about that one. The other is we have no free will and we (and who/what the “we” is there is hard to define) are merely observing the pre-determined firing of nerves bubbling up as thoughts. That’s probably my preferred explanation. The third option is there’s something about the true quantum physics nature of reality which allows for randomness and chance (though generally only at a sub-atomic level) that explains all this.
So this kind of ties in with Eckhardt Tolle and many other’s point about ego. If option two above is correct, I’m not really doing things, I’m merely observing my brain/self running through the programmed motions of doing something. So I really should have no pride in achievement for example, since it’s not really me doing things.
You would think this would be disturbing but I don’t really find it so. Partly because it does map to certain experiences I’ve had. What are things I’ve accomplished, that I feel proud of? Well, various songs I’ve composed, articles I’ve written. But the truth is, during those processes of creation I often don’t feel that I’m doing the writing/composing – it’s more like the universe is handing me ideas and I’m annotating them.
I’m reminded of a book I’ve mentioned in the past, “The User Illusion.” In there is story about the scientist James Clerk Maxwell, a guy who came up with a lot of groundbreaking ideas related topics like thermodynamics. He was on his deathbed and said, “What is done by what is called myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me.”
E.g. it wasn’t “him” doing the things.
But then who/what is doing the things? And who/what is observing them?