Who are We?—and What is the Universe?

(Douglas Duff) #22

Consciousness has not been mentioned in this thread just yet. I might like to add that who we are and what the universe is is related to consciousness…whatever that may be.

I keep mentioning in various places this hibernation project I am working on. I cannot really describe it in full, nor do I understand myself when I start to write about it, but I believe the two questions tie in with my exploration. Part of my hibernation is a mini-dark retreat (a dark retreat involves an extended amount of time in total darkness for meditative purposes). This is a sort of sensory deprivation, an attempt to go beyond the senses. I am not my body. I am not my mind. I am not my story. I am not this or that, none of the occurrences in my lifetime define what i really am. Nor are “We” our bodies, minds, collective stories, chance happenings. Yes, I know that we are these things, once I think about it… yet, we are much, much more.

Dark enough, for 30 minutes to an hour, to explore what arises. I am able to open my eyes and see the same as if my eyes are closed. I do this frequently enough to try out some personal experiments. In some sessions, I am attempting to see Consciousness as points, any point, as an attempt to get out of my body.

To quote Marco (replacing quarks with “conscious points”): “If I sit quietly and realize: everything around me—my body—my sensations—everything I can feel, see, hear, or otherwise sense is made of conscious points —if I look for conscious points within my body , as a pervasive feeling state and the most direct reality I can identify (with)—THEN I can proceed to an intellectual image of what conscious points are in the universal context.” The point of my point exercise is to become not my body, from without my body. During a fruitful session I will “leave” my point of typical conscious reference (head space) and observe my body (now not mine) from a point above, below, left or right. I will leave my body (an out of body experience? probably not as typically defined). When I am meditating at my best this conscious point can move about the space the size of the room, exploring as fast or as slow as it desires, then… even larger, reaching spaces from points in this world and beyond. Even better, or more interesting, is when this point multiplies. Am I all of these points? Are we?

God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. – Nicholas of Cusa

WHO ARE WE? Who am I? Not my body, when I stop to think about it. I am that point, pointing wherever it may be. I am nothing. Yet I am everything. We are all points, a bit more of nothing and everything. We are change, yes, neither here nor there. The stories for me are nothing…any story can be erased, proven false. And everything: any story can be proven true, brought to light. (I am really enjoying Octavia Butler’s quotes from the Book of the Living, btw!).

I am still working on the first question before attempting to understand the universe! Another quote from Cusa:

The universe has no circumference , for if it had a center and a circumference there would be some and some thing beyond the world, suppositions which are wholly lacking in truth. Since, therefore, it is impossible that the universe should be enclosed within a corporeal center and corporeal boundary, it is not within our power to understand the universe, whose center and circumference are God . And though the universe cannot be infinite, nevertheless it cannot be conceived as finite since there are no limits within which it could be confined.

(Frederick Dolan) #23

On the Freud problem, I wonder whether you or anyone here read Frederick Crews’s Freud: The Making of an Illusion, which was published last year? Some of what’s in it has appeared in the NYRB over the years but there’s much more as well.

(john davis) #24

I have yet to read this book but I have followed the history of the psychoanalytic movement and find it pretty hollow hence my pleasure in parodying Papa Freud. He was a very confused person and that he still is taken so seriously by academia continues to amaze me.

(Mark Jabbour) #25

As the resident Darwinian Freudian, from Why Sex Matters (Low) question 1) “… a smart, upright-walking, highly social primate and nothing more.” (p.4) and “… seek to understand how relatively simple operating rules interact with historical accidents, and with temporal and spatial specifics, to yield a rich diversity of patters.” and “Vampire folklore provides a wonderful example of how our need to explain something can drive us to spin stories that seem to explain what we see, can be hard to refute, but nonetheless do not reflect what actually happens.” (p.5)

(back to top) interesting how this topic was generated from an event of “highly social primates” gathered around a fire spinning stories… something “we” have done since we invented the “deliberate use of fire.” (Snyder) going back millions (?) of years. If we become just minds, traveling through space - how will we ever spin stories? and would that then change who “we” are?

(Ed Mahood) #26

OK, let’s start there.

A conclusion drawn from a heap of assumptions, especially the “nothing more” part, which is actually a value judgment, not a conclusion.

The rules may in fact be simple but are we in agreement which these are? And I think “accidents” needs a bit of clarification, as as a Darwinian/Freudian, you’ve got to be a big fan of cause-and-effect, and I once learned that “accidents” are merely effects for which we have failed to identify the causes … i.e., something had to make it happen. Though I would heartily agree that we’re confronted with a “rich variety of patterns”.

Literally perhaps, but metaphorically (and perhaps more)? Stories live from the more not from their literalness, but the previous “nothing more” indicates things are “literally” that way.

There was a fire, to be sure, but 16% is not a story, it is a statement of estimated fact. What about the running water to be heard? Oh, who cares? 16% … only an engineer would come up with 16%.

(Going back to the top:) How can the Darwinian in you envision that we will become just “minds”. Can’t happen. We will remain embodied, I am sure, but the Freudian side of you must also be telling you that whatever stories are being spun, they will never be literal, will they?

I’m not saying, I’m just saying.

(Mark Jabbour) #27

ok, @achronon (@madrush), I’m done flicking the mobile today & just having fun. (Thank you.)

Exactly! you closely matched (w/r/t birth) person. The Interpretation of Dreams, Civilization and its Discontents, Totem and Taboo, the Cocaine Papers . I don’t buy it (disembodied minds, evolved consciousness), except, maybe, for the insertion of AI, which may, if not restrained, take over - Life - and “we” become extinct … only to re-imerge on Earth? Who the F --k knows?
and so I write; but the world doesn’t stop turning (see Alice down the rabbit hole.) Just saying.

(Mark Jabbour) #28

Just saying, maybe the most referenced literature ever?


(Arkapravo Bhaumik) #29

It is probably a coincidence but Freud has been often mentioned in here and I recently read a story ‘Freuds’ by Toh Enjoe (probably his Japanese name is Enjoe Toh) in the book, 'Self-Reference ENGINE’. It is one of the best stories on magical-realism, the philosophy of reality and of course, the interpretation of dreams.

The first line of this story is, “When I went to demolish my grandmother’s house, a whole bunch of Freuds came up from under the floorboards.”

(Ed Mahood) #30

Very much, to be sure, but the most referenced – directly and indirectly – in Western literature overall is the Bible.

If you’ve never read them, Northrop Frye’s The Great Code: The Bible and Literature and it’s sequel, if you will, Words with Power (particularly relevant for our own little excursion into a related subject) are both very insightful reads.

(Mark Jabbour) #31

Hi, @achronon, sorry to take so long to re, even I get busy. So I checked out the great code on goodreads, which as always, smart people have different takes. Here’s one I found intriguing:
“This book changed my life. I’m not just saying that. It really did. I learned how to read, watch, and consume literature in a whole new way. It’s like, before I read this book I was gulping down literature as if it were water, somewhat bland at times but necessary for life, and now after I’ve read the book I’ve realized that it’s more like a fine wine that deserves to be savored and that there’s different, subtle notes to it to that deserve to be discovered. The Great Code brings to life not only Scripture but all of Literature by bringing to light the very nature of language, metaphor, typology, and mythology that is rooted in the biblical narrative but that has seeped into the life-blood of all literature. Definitely a difficult read, but one that is so worth it to struggle through and to seek understanding of.”

So, Yes, the Bible, or “the greatest Story ever told”, ha! maybe. Certainly the most widely read and studied (maybe). My brother is here for an overnight, and he’s a Born Again Christian, a deacon in his church, and has been doing “Bible Study” for some 40 years! The math: 8,320 hours, that makes him an almost expert, if it’s true that 10,000 hrs are needed to become expert.
I think, I summed it up the other day in cafe with one sentence: "Religion (The Good Book) brings order and comfort to “souls”, or smart (stupid) upright-walking, highly social (language using) primates. But I’d never say that to him. Sure, I’ll write it in a book, but I’m not going to poke him in the chest with it, if you get my drift. See you in a few hours - this one (the cafe) should be really fun!

(Frederick Dolan) #32

I’ll just make a brief effort to sketch a response to these essential questions – nothing definitive! But it will at least indicate how I’ve approached the questions.

If you’ll allow it, I’d like to change the grammar from the first person plural to the first person singular. (The two are, I think, importantly different and create different problems. But, of course, they’re also related, and reflecting on the singular might affect our approach to the plural.) So, who am I?

I could be a “thinking substance.” I could be whatever it is that has beliefs, feelings, and other mental properties. But saying that I have beliefs doesn’t necessarily yield the conclusion that these beliefs are properties of a substance, a thing that exists independently of the beliefs. In saying I am elated, for example, the word “I” doesn’t necessarily refer to some entity in the world; it may be that I’m just expressing how things are with me or from my point of view. Since there’s no way to prove me wrong when I say I’m elated, there’s no question of whether my statement is true or false. Yet statements about entities are true or false. So I’m not an entity independent of my experiences.

So maybe we should say there is no I and that, whatever “I” am, I’m not a substantial self? Well, not so fast. When I say I’m elated, I’m not saying merely that elation is occurring somewhere. I’m saying that something is happening to me. And that would be true or false, hence not a mere expression. I am the elated one. The stakes become apparent if we consider a statement such as “He is causing me pain.” Then everything would seem to hinge, morally, on the pain being my pain. But then who, or what, is the I?

If I’m asked who I am, I tend to think of my subjective experiences. On the one hand, these experiences are uniquely accessible to me and not to you; on the other hand, they are not transparent to me: they don’t provide me with an absolutely clear sense of who I am. Others define me in terms of what I typically do or say, and for this reason who I am may seem very clear to others even though I as I define myself am not as accessible to them as I am to me. Of course, I assume you’re like this too. Is that what we are – beings who are uniquely accessible to ourselves and uniquely inaccessible to others, yet more clearly definable to others than we are to ourselves? And in that sense, perhaps more accessible to others than we are to ourselves?

In what I’ve said so far, I’ve been playing the views of Descartes off of the views of Wittgenstein. Part of what Descartes wanted from his view of the I as a simple, indivisible, singular substance was a defense of the immortality of the soul/self: something absolutely simple could neither come into being nor cease to exist, because that requires complex parts and stages. In Wittgenstein’s view, I am nothing over and above (or beneath) my thoughts and acts, which persist for a while and then disappear.

This view of the self as basically insubstantial is something I associate not only with Wittgenstein but with Buddhism. It’s appealing in many ways and for many reasons, but I worry that it doesn’t do justice to the fact I noted earlier: my feeling that the thoughts and experiences I have are mine. That I regard them as mine strikes me as essential to our conviction that we are agents, i.e. beings who take responsibility for ourselves and our actions. And that conviction underpins my commitment to modern western liberal democracy and all of the attachments and goods that implies. It’s not something I’m prepared to jettison.

Of course, it’s possible that Nietzsche was right and that the concept of agency was “invented” in order to be able to hold people responsible so that we can punish them, not to bring about justice but merely to satisfy our desire for revenge. I think there must be a great deal of truth in this as a kind of sociological or anthropological or psychological or historical fact, but I doubt it gets to the essentials of who I am. At least, I hope it doesn’t.

(Frederick Dolan) #33

When I got to the end of Crews’s book – and it’s a slog – I felt that there was absolutely nothing left of Freud. For example, he appears to have got Anna O. addicted to both cocaine and heroin, and then interpreted symptoms of addiction to these drugs as evidence of “neurosis,” which he proceeded to “treat” by molesting her. And that’s just one of a thousand and one discoveries Crews unearthed.

(Frederick Dolan) #34

In this post, I’ll try to go from analysis to intuition and from Who are we? to What is the universe?

The intuition is that value is real: value inheres in everything that exists, and what exists, including human life, exists for a reason, namely to realize a purpose that takes the form of a complete and ordered whole. This statement would be true of everything from the narrative of an individual life to the universe itself, whatever it turns out to be. A further part of the intuition is that one of the most important ways in which this truth is communicated to us is beauty: the narrative of a well-lived life is beautiful, as is the starry sky above and the moral law within, as we expect the final theory of everything will be. That’s because completeness and orderliness, and the accompanying feeling of inevitability and perfection, are what constitutes beauty. The proper attitude towards what exists, therefore, is some complex of awe, wonder, pleasure, and gratitude.

An implication is that there’s a deep connection between grasping the nature of the universe and the appropriate response to it, and living a morally serious life – which I take to be a life that coheres with the purposefulness, order, and value that characterizes the universe as a whole, such that one’s life contributes to that order rather than detracts from it. Another implication is that it matters very much how one lives. Trying to live a life that’s coherent in this sense is the most fundamental obligation we have and so defines, if not who we are, then what we are – namely persons, i.e. agents with the ability and responsibility to make something of ourselves.

These intuitions yield a view that is basically transcendental. The universe, including human beings, is not just the set of facts that it may appear to be. The facts are features of something permanent, valuable, purposeful, and beautiful.

Now if purposefulness is an attribute of the universe, it makes sense to think of the universe as a person and therefore as something we can relate to personally, even though the sense in which the universe is a person may be impossible for us to imagine. Or we could hypothesize that the universe was created by God for a purpose, in which case we could reasonably think of God as a person with whom we could have a personal relationship, even though the sense in which God is a person may be beyond our grasp.

Anyway, that’s more or less the way I see it – at least on good days. There is one wrinkle, a Kantian wrinkle. Everything about these intuitions is drawn from the universe as it appears to us. They imply nothing about the universe as it is in itself. Even our intuitions of the numinous or sublime or beyond are necessarily ways in which the beyond appears to us. So we have to contend with the fact that with regard to the way things are independently of us, the universe may be radically different from anything we can conceive.

(john davis) #35

I read H.D.s Tribute to Freud. She called him Papa. It is one of the few accounts of his actual practice with a highly articulate and creative person, one of the great poets of her time. All I can say is that by contemporary standards he would probably loose his license. An outrageous display of sexism and sadism. This would be sad except that H.D. saw through his tricks and frustrates his strategy with her wit and intelligence. It is very ironic that it was William James who gave a boost to Freud’s career. No one knew him in Europe until James endorsed his project. James, the leading intellectual of his day, thought Freud was going to be a fad that would eventually fade but was worth supporting anyway. Alas, Freud quickly eclipsed James who seems to have much less influence until recently. Does anyone read James? He is such a good writer. James is a giant in comparison. Freud was a fucked up fraud.

(Frederick Dolan) #36

Philosophers read (and argue about) James; I don’t know about psychologists. I gather that among many other acts of plagiarism, Freud stole James’s “justifications” for the concept of the unconscious. James had listed the arguments for the unconscious in order to refute them; Freud just left out the refutations.