by Joel Marks
December 17, 2015
It came to me in a flash how extraordinarily limited is our hold on consciousness and hence that which most distinguishes us from inert matter. In the shower I used to invariably find myself in a quandary about whether I had already soaped up my body. This would happen when I had rinsed off and was considering whether to turn off the spigot; I would suddenly wonder, “Did I just wipe off the lather, or did I not put it on my body in the first place?”
Sounds like senility, doesn’t it? But I am not senile. I have various other self-checks on my memory to assure me that my memory remains as healthy as anybody’s my age (of 66, though this has been going on for years).
So one day I thought of a tactic. I would make a sign on the moisture misted glass shower door when I was about to lather up. I rather dramatically chose the sign of the Z, after my childhood memories of Zorro. (You see? My memory is intact!) Then when I am wondering whether to turn off the shower, I need only look to see if there is a Z on the door. (This tactic may have been inspired by a wonderful episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, which begins with the crew playing cards and then their whole ship exploding as it unexpectedly encounters a spacetime warp. This happens over and over until finally Lt. Cmdr. Data, I think, figures it out the instant before the explosion and leaves a clue for himself to discover on the next recycling so that he can prevent the explosion.) I have used this method with moderate success for a long time now. The problem is, sometimes I even forget to make the sign of the Z, so, knowing this, I am still left in the same quandary whenever I don’t see it.
Practical problems aside, though, this has put me to ponder our fragile hold on what life is all about. For I realize now that our much vaunted consciousness is but an exceedingly thin patina over the bulk of dark matter (if I may call it that – matter lacking the light of consciousness). In this it is much like the layer of life-giving atmosphere that blankets our planet – hardly a sliver of thickness relative to the globe. And as we move forward in time, it rolls up behind us like a red carpet after the visiting dignitary has passed by. I now absolutely marvel at the tenuousness of our conscious reality as I pay attention to my own awareness. There I am, lathering up my body in the shower, and I know that what I am experiencing will vanish irretrievably in just a few seconds!
Paying attention to it in this way does enable me to recall snippets … and this is my new and preferred method of recalling whether I have soaped up; because not only is it more reliable than the Z, but it also exercises, and therefore presumably strengthens, the very faculty whose preservation is so precious.
Nevertheless, the main message I take away from all this is that our conscious world is largely illusory in its seeming to be whole and comprehensive, for in fact it is quite fragmentary and fleeting. (I drew the same lesson from Dennett’s example in Consciousness Explained of an experimental joke played on him by a computer science colleague. Dennett was told he would be given a demonstration of how the mind or brain constructs whole images out of bits of images, sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. He was asked to sit in front of a computer monitor, on which he observed a screensaver appear while the colleague was in another room setting up the display. A few minutes later the colleague came back and asked him how it had gone. How what had gone? It turned out that there was no screensaver on the monitor! A camera mounted on top of the monitor had been tracking Dennett’s gaze, and in response to the input from that camera, pieces of image had been projected on the screen only at those points where Dennett’s eyes happened to be looking. Thus, the “screensaver” was not only not on the screen, but also not in Dennett’s visual field. Instead Dennett only thought he was looking at a screensaver and/or thought he was experiencing a visual field filled with the image of a screensaver. The screensaver, both real and apparent, was an illusion.)
Popular posts from this blog
by Joel Marks December 29, 2015 It’s nothing short of a miracle. Pressure points, aka trigger points – have you heard of them? I could not tell you what the underlying physiology is. But I learned about them in practice from a good friend of mine, who is a masseur and also the creator of a line of simple tools for self-massage. When a number of years ago I began noticing that sign of exceeding the normal lifespan of Homo erectus, namely, lower back pain, Allan gave me a squash ball to place between my back and the wall and then roll across. The aim was to discover a pressure point which was somehow responsible for the “referred pain” in my back. After some experimenting I found a spot on one side of my spine, seeming to be in a cord that ran up and down the side of my back parallel to the spine (there being another cord on the other side as well). How did I know it was “the” spot? Because it hurt sharply when the ball rolled over it. Lo and behold, after doing this for no
The other day an old friend told me of her regret about the decision she had made in her early life to go to graduate school A rather than graduate school B, because it may have shut off some career opportunities. Philosopher that I am, I immediately dismissed her concern by pointing out that her beloved daughter would not even exist had my friend made a different decision. My friend did not at first see the connection, so I explained that I was referring to the utter contingency of which sperm meets which egg; so the slightest alteration of prior conditions would mean a different person, or no person, would have been born. Although she then saw what I was getting at, this did not lift her regret. I chalked it up to the usual irrationality of nonphilosophers (which also includes all philosophers when they revert to being just plain people, which is really just about all of the time, even in their professional role). But some musing on another subject has now given me a differ
OK, this is not a new theory of the Trump Presidency. From the very first it was speculated that he had become an accidental president, never expecting to win and perhaps not even wanting to, but with some ulterior motive most likely linked to marketing the Trump brand in his future business dealings. Of course there were also darker murmurings (and indications) that he was a Manchurian candidate … perhaps even an unintentional and totally befuddled one more along the lines of Being There . But Trump’s behavior since losing the election to Biden has been (and continues to be as I write) so off the wall, so seemingly intended to make him look as bad and bonkers and just plain pathetic as possible, as to suggest, and indeed support another theory I myself (along with others, no doubt) had entertained from the very start, which is that he’s doing it just for a joke, just for the sport. Basically he wants to see just how far somebody can go in putting one over on people.