Monday, November 07, 2005

Further Philosophy

I found myself in a philosophical frame of mind again this past Friday when I wrote this, so for those of you who don’t care for my “meaning of life musings”, you have been warned.


Are you familiar with synchronicity? Not the classic album by The Police, but Carl Jung’s theory that the collective consciousness weaves the interactions of our discrete psyche’s in a way that thing that appear to have no causal relationship happen in a strangely coincidental way? I think many of us at least superstitiously believe in synchronicity to a certain degree. The act of gambling with knowledge that the house has the advantage is a nod to synchronicity. I remember once running into a woman at a bookstore (where she was reading a book about synchronicity) and then encountering the same woman at a restaurant that was about three miles away later that day. I remember thinking that maybe she was someone I was supposed to meet for some grand purpose in her life or my own, but of course I could have been just rationalizing because she was fairly attractive. She actually left her purse behind in the restaurant and I was able to catch up with her as she was exiting the parking lot and give it to her…we chatted for a moment and I gave her my card, but she never called. I think the fact that I still think about that encounter with the beautiful woman with an interest in Jungian psychology ever once in a while is evidence enough that I believe in synchronicity (or I am a pathetically sentimental romantic).

So why this talk of coincidences? Well, in the last two days something peculiar happened. I have had a coincidence of ideas presented to me that are highly correlated to last week’s post, and they have come in strange ways. Yesterday, one of my co-workers was telling me about this movie/book “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. There is a scene in the movie where the protagonists are being pursued (in their spaceship I suppose) by two nuclear missiles when they hit the Improbability Drive (an “emergency” feature of the ship that causes something improbable to happen). Well the improbable does happen, and one of the missiles instantly transforms into a sperm whale careening through the atmosphere of a planet and the other missile transforms into a potted plant. The viewer is allowed to hear the thoughts of the sperm whale now careening toward the planet who’s gravity it is caught in:

“Ah....! What's happening? it thought.

Er, excuse me, who am I?


Why am I here? What's my purpose in life?

What do I mean by who am I?

Calm down, get a grip now...oh! this is an interesting sensation, what is it? It's a sort of....yawning, tingling sensation in I suppose I'd better start finding names for things if I want to make any headway in what for the sake I shall call an argument I shall call the world, so let's call it my stomach.

Good. Ooooh, it's getting quite strong. And hey, what about this whistling roaring sound going past what I am suddenly going to call my head? Perhaps can call that.....the wind! Is that a good name? It'll do....perhaps I can find a better name for it later when I've found out what's it for. It must be something very important because there certainly seems to be a hell of a lot of it. Hey! What' this thing? This....let's call it a tail-yeah, tail. Hey! I can really thrash it about pretty good, can't I? Wow! Wow! That feels great! Doesn't seem to achieve very much but I'll probably find out what's it for later on. Now, have I built up any coherent picture of things yet?


Never mind, hey, this is really exciting, so much to find out about, so much to look forward to, I'm quite dizzy with anticipation....

Or is it the wind?

There really is a lot of that now, isn't there?

And wow! Hey! What's this thing suddenly coming toward me very fast? Very, very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big widesounding name like....ow.....ound....round......ground! That's it! That's a good name-ground!

I wonder if it will be friends with me?

And the rest, after a sudden wet thud, was silence."

A curious scene, no?

Today, I was reading a book, “I Am Charlotte Simmons”, the newest Tom Wolfe novel which is about modern college life. Interestingly enough, there is a professor in the book who is not a main character (at least not yet up to where I have read in the narrative) who presents the following hypothetical situation:

“Let’s say you pick up a rock and you throw it. And in mid-flight you give that rock consciousness and a rational mind. That little rock will think it has free will and will give you a highly rational account of why it had decided to take the route it’s taking…am I really…merely…a conscious little rock”

A curious notion, no?

Well these two “spins” on the same idea forced me to look back at what I put forth last week about the evolution of consciousness. Am I no different than the sperm whale (albeit with more time and the ability to see other sperm whale’s falling in their trajectory with a strong idea of how it will eventually end)? Am I just a rock coming to life mid-flight, and thus developing the best theory that I can for why I am going the way that I am going but none the less on a deterministic journey?

Before I answer, let’s get back to synchronicity. Do I find it odd that these concepts that are quite novel to me were introduced to me in the span of less than a week after I put forth my entry on consciousness being somewhat of an algorithm with a very deterministic element to it? Is it coincidence or some manifestation of the intent of the universe to impress something upon my consciousness? I don’t think it matters. I think the complex world around me is constantly revealing its mysteries, but these revelations are so overwhelming that I probably ignore most of what I am exposed to. I once heard it said that all of the mystery of the universe is written in a single grain of sand, if we care to observe it. But I am after all flesh and blood, and much of my mental energy is going to be spent on things such meeting needs whether they be physical or emotional, so I guess I miss out on quite a bit. But I think sometimes my mind comes to these lulls where I am allowed a deeper vision or insight into my experience. It seems that the consciousness of the universe allowed me to pick up a little of its mystery last week and it continues to impress on my whenever I care to take notice. I can only wonder about the billion or so mysteries that sailed right past me last week, without me caring to notice. I am reminded of a line from Alice Walker’s novel, “The Color Purple,” where Shug Avery states, “I think it pisses God off if you walk past the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” I don’t know about pissing God off, but my experience has always shown that the more you care to notice the beauty of the universe, the more beauty it seems to want to reveal. It really doesn’t matter where you look either, it really is everywhere, even in our own hearts.

So back to the question at hand…am I a conscious little rock? Well in the last entry I talked about the possibility that free will could spring from entropy if the consciousness imbedded in the universe simply set the parameters of the universe such that free will would develop inevitably. How free is free will, if it was destined to develop as a result of the human condition? It seems to me that the key to understanding free will is that it is relative. There are some things in life that are inevitable in terms of our own immediate desires. Just like the rock is being hurled through space and is not instantly aware of how to take control over its final destination, there are aspects of the human experience that appear beyond my control: when I was born and who I was born to, having human emotions, early behavioral adaptations to my environment, and the extreme likelihood that I will die one day. With that said, there are so many things that we do have perceived control over. So even if I am a rock hurtling through space, I have what Viktor Frankl refers to in “Man’s Search For Meaning” as the last of all freedoms: the freedom to choose how I feel about my experience, the freedom to develop my free will. With that said, I see one of my greatest responsibilities with being given life, the development of my ability to expand this freedom of mind and thought pushing the limits, but accepting what I have not yet learned to change or control. We have the benefit of seeing the rock with “god’s eye”, but in my own case I see no point in assuming there are any limitations on what my consciousness is capable off. In other words, free will is only limited to what the rock can never develop an ability to affect through consciousness, and it is arguable if the rock can ever come to a finite awareness of something that appears so unlimited as its own potentiality. I am not wise enough to say what the limit of that consciousness is in my own case, nor in the case of the rock.

mr. wilson