Recently, I realized that I wasn’t gaining much value from my interactions on social media. I was being constantly bombarded with images and soundbites that I didn’t care about, and was never entirely comfortable posting things I did care about. After all, when Facebook has received over twenty million dollars in funding from the CIA, stating any opinion which runs contrary to the government, in writing, right next to your name and a picture of your face, seems unwise.

Of course, that’s not the only reason I’m going to try switching back to blogging for a little bit. It’s a great writing exercise. Facebook encourages everything to be broken down into easily digestible bite-sized chunks of information: one subject and a picture or video. Having a limit of a paragraph or so, and sticking to government-approved subjects doesn’t exactly provide a great amount of creative freedom. And honestly, if I’m writing, I should be writing something more productive than a post to one of my conservative relatives, debating about whether or not Obama is Muslim, or Kenyan, or the Antichrist, or Dumbo, or whatever they’re calling him these days. Or a comment saying “omigod i agree that food looks so good.”

I’ve also been thinking that social media cheapens interpersonal interaction. We’re all listed together on the screen, names and pictures lined up next to our most recently posted thoughts, blurbs of language all competing at once for everyone’s attention. Our opinions on complex issues are distilled down into simple buttons or comments. If you don’t like the argument someone is making, or aren’t immediately comfortable with the turn the conversation is taking, just click away to the cute kittens on the next page over. Even if all you want to do with the site is keep up with friends,you’re being provided quality time with nobody. You’re getting text and pictures without facial expression or body language, and you’re getting them altogether.

One might argue that social media doesn’t aim to replace in-person interaction, merely to supplement it. Unfortunately, time is a limited commodity, and time spent interacting via Facebook is time not spent interacting face to face. Having your phone out when you’re sitting at dinner with somebody means you’re not giving them the sort of full, undivided attention which is necessary to build relationships. If, every time there’s a silence, you whip out your phone for a distraction, it’s a sign that you’re becoming increasingly discontent with both interpersonal interaction and your own self, seeking to validate your existence with others.

We could respond by saying that it’s merely entertainment to fill the boring parts of life, but then we also might ask if it isn’t social media which has trained us to be bored by things other than lists of pop-culture phenomena or cute cat videos. 

Interactions on social media seem to have less value to me, since I’m all but assured my thoughts are only among dozens of others they’re reading on any given session visiting the site, with each having an average of maybe 5 seconds devoted to thinking or responding. On a blog, I may have few or no readers, but at least I’ll know that they were all there because they wanted to hear what I had to say (or because they wanted to farm emails for nigerian scammers).

As for keeping in touch over long distances, sharing videos, news, links, and chatting, there are separate programs for all of those, which allow for increased personalization of communication, as well as greater privacy. And the blog adds a layer of anonymity for any posts which may not directly align with commonly held values: no longer is my name and face displayed right next to my words.

Anyway, that’ll be it for tonight. I’m tired and for some reason I can’t feel my arm when I’m not touching it. Good night.

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“Mildew”

By Jeff Henry

When Mike got out of bed on the morning everything started to go wrong, he was already angry because of what had woken him up. Not a loud sound or an annoying neighbor; no, each and every one of his neighbors in the surrounding apartments were as kind and courteous as could be. Nor was his anger the result of particularly unpleasant dreams. It was something very simple, actually – an eye-wateringly strong stench of mildew which had crept into his nostrils as he snored peacefully. Usually the odor of mildew is subtle, only mildly unpleasant, associated with long-abandoned houses and musty old attics. But there was nothing subtle or mild about this smell, and as Mike got up and pulled on a robe, he knew it could only be caused by one thing.

After three or four steps towards the bedroom door, his bare foot squished down into cold and wet carpet. He paused, eyes narrowed, then took another step. Squish.

God damn it, he thought.

When he pushed the door open he found more or less what he expected, but that didn’t brighten his mood. In the center of the room (the only other one in the small apartment) a steady stream of water was trickling from a crack in the ceiling, ever so thin. It was splashing into the still spreading inch-deep pond now covering most of his apartment. In fact, his cat (well, more accurately, their cat, his and his girlfriend, Jane’s) was crouched like a tiny gray lion, drinking from a small “stream” flowing between the kitchen counter and a clothes-filled laundry hamper.

“Cordy, no!” Mike shouted, and she scampered away. Jane was the one who had given the cat her strange name; said it was short for Cordyso…Cordyce… well, Cordy something or other. Mike couldn’t remember the exact name, but it was a bizarre fungus that Jane said was the most fascinating living thing she knew of. And living things were her business – she worked in a biology lab on the nearby University campus, where she was also a graduate student.

She was at the lab now actually, as she had so often seemed to be lately. Mike had somewhere to be himself. He glanced at the clock, saw he had to be at work (which was a ten minute drive away) in ten minutes, and exhaled tersely through clenched teeth. For a brief moment, he wished everything were dead.

Mike didn’t know that soon, he was going to be experiencing those brief moments more and more frequently.

~~~

Not much changed about Mike’s morning, except that he had to put his shoes on before anything else, dragging them through the brackish flood water which covered most of the floor as he hastily pulled on clothes and poured a cup of room temperature coffee from the previous day’s pot.

As soon as he was in the car (and swerving in and out of traffic with one eye on the clock), he was on the phone. The first call he made was to his landlord, Ollie. After four or five rings it went to voicemail.

“Heya, thanks for givin’ Ollie a callie!” a voice blared jovially in his ear. “I can’t come to the phone right now, but leave a message and I’ll definitely get back to ya!”

Yeah right, Mike thought, but waited.

Beep.

“Ollie, please call me back as soon as you can. The pipes are busted again and I have an inch of water in my apartment. This really needs to get fixed. Thanks.”

Mike hung up, proud of how much he’d restrained himself. It was only marginally Ollie’s fault that the pipes kept breaking (a certain amount of problems, after all, can be expected in a low-rent apartment in an old building), but his tendency to make himself scarce when one of his tenants had a problem (despite his buddy-buddy attitude whenever he talked to them)was another story. Low rent or not, Mike was of the opinion that if he paid a monthly fee to live where he did, then the one he was paying should do his part to maintain the property. Or any part at all. He shook his head.

The next call he made was to Jane.

“Hey! How’s your day going? …Trouble with breeding for the experiments? …Oh. Yeah, I guess it would be hard to tell male fruit flies from female ones. Don’t they have an undergrad that could do that? Anyway – …Oh, my day could be going better. Speaking of which, did you notice anything different when you got up for work this morning? …Like, for instance, an inch of water on the fucking floor? …Yeah, I know. Must have happened in between when you left and I woke up. Ollie really needs to get his shit together. …Okay, I’ll let you get back to work… love you, too. Bye.” He hung up the phone and reached for the radio, hoping to find some music to distract himself. That’s when he noticed it again.

It was the familiar, musty odor of mildew. More subtle, this time, but definitely still there. He sniffed around; it seemed to be coming from him. Great, he thought, must have gotten on my clothes, if not from this flood, from one of the past two or three. He made a mental note to change as soon as he got home.

By the time Mike got to work it had started raining, and as the clouds had come relatively unannounced, he was caught without an umbrella or raincoat. He dashed into the restaurant (The Morel Cafe) as quickly as possible, but was unable to avoid getting his shirt and shoes soaked as he splashed through puddles in the parking lot. Mike grabbed an apron off the hook as he stepped in and tied it on, prepared to spend a solid six hours on his feet and hoping the rain would let up so that his hourly cigarette breaks would be less damp. He sketched out a quick prep list for the cooks and then got started making orders. It was busy, so he barely even noticed the itch beginning to tickle at his feet.

~~

When Mike took his fourth break of the day, the itch that had started the day as a mild scratchy feeling was gnawing steadily away at the sole of his left foot and between the toes of his right. At first, he had tried taking off his shoes and scratching away, but the second he had tied his shoes back up, the itching had returned with a vengeance. Now he stood miserably in the drippy, gray aftermath of the storm with his damp, sore feet relentlessly crawling and prickling, with a cigarette smoldering in his mouth and sending smoke into his narrowed brown eyes.

There was a time, he found himself thinking, not long ago – maybe twenty years – when rain would have been almost unheard of during January in Minneapolis. It probably would have been another two months before we saw anything but snow. He sneezed. Now here we are, five days from February, it’s a humid, rainy day and I have a bad case of allergies. I almost wish the bitter cold of winter would come back and freeze everything.

Especially the mildew, he thought out of the blue. In fact, he could have almost sworn that for a second, he had smelt it almost as strongly as he had in his apartment. Now, though, he could only catch the normal kitchen scents drifting out from the doorway behind him.

Just then his phone buzzed in his pocket. Was it Ollie calling him back? Maybe telling him that he was awfully sorry for the inconvenience, but that a plumber would be over sometime between 9 A.M and Armageddon?

Fat chance. Even fatter than Ollie himself, and that’s the bald truth of it. Mike knew that thought was childish, but it elicited a chuckle from him all the same. Ollie was a very fat man. Bald, to boot.

Sure enough, it was just Jane sending him a joke someone at her lab had told her. It probably wouldn’t have been considered funny by most people. Jane and Mike took pleasure in telling each other the lamest jokes they could think of; they were so in love that they considered each others’ worst quips to be absolute comic gold.

This was the joke:

“Why did the mushroom go to the party? Because he was a fun-gi. :-p”

~~

When Mike got home that night, Jane was on the brink of tears. She couldn’t find Cordy anywhere, she said – the cat had been missing when she got back from the lab. She had checked the entire apartment and didn’t find anything. Mike told her that he knew that Cordy had been there when he left so she must be around the apartment somewhere. Together, they recommenced the search.

And, once again, Mike noticed that oddly pervasive odor and said nothing about it, though it it disturbed him to repeatedly catch the scent of mustiness and decay. Jane had thrown some towels on the floor and soaked up most of the water (though there were still puddles here and there which they both continually stepped in) and the smell had improved a little, but– not enough. Not nearly enough.

The apartment was messy, with (now mostly soaked) clothes and books scattered everywhere, but it wasn’t big – so it didn’t take them long to determine that Cordy wasn’t there.

“Is it possible she could have run out when you left for work?” Jane asked, struggling to keep her voice from wavering.

“I think I would have noticed,” Mike said, scratching distractedly at his scalp – the latest place where the annoying itch had made its appearance, “but I suppose it’s possible. I don’t see what other alternatives there are. If someone picked the lock on our door, why didn’t they steal anything else?”

So, they wandered around the surrounding blocks for an hour in the rainy January night, calling out “Cordy!” and “Here, kitty, kitty!” without any success. Eventually, they trudged back home, their clothes damp. The flood had ensured that they had no fresh ones to change into, so they ate a microwaved dinner together in downcast silence, with only the sounds of chewing and Mike scratching insistently at his feet and scalp to keep them company. After making a few posters, which Mike planned to put up the next morning (“Lost: Gray, Fluffy Cat named ‘Cordy,’ Call Number Below, Reward Offered”), Jane climbed into bed, since she had to be at the lab at a mercilessly early hour to check up on an experiment.

Mike tried calling his landlord one more time, and once again was answered only by that cheerful, recorded message that made Mike want to strangle the man (“Thanks for givin’ Ollie a callie!”). He had no idea what to do, or who he was supposed to talk to, if Ollie wouldn’t get someone in to fix the pipes. They couldn’t keep dealing with floods; by the smell of it, Mike judged there was already a substantial mold problem which was only getting worse. Frustrated, he took off his clothes and climbed into bed beside Jane, staring at the ceiling, tossing and turning, and scratching everywhere that itched – scalp, arms, feet, and now his back – until he fell asleep.

~~~

Mike tossed and turned most of the night, feeling hot and delirious. He kept awaking from half dreams, and once, he was certain that he’d heard Cordy meowing from somewhere above him – the ceiling, maybe, or cat heaven. But, after sitting absolutely still for more than a minute, the subtlest sounds impacting his ears like small explosions, the meowing was not repeated. The only thing he sensed before sleep overtook him once again was the smell of mildew, tauntingly, sickeningly musty and sweet.

~~~

Before long, Mike woke up to the sound of Jane swearing loudly. Water was coming through the hole in the ceiling again, despite Jane’s best efforts to plug it with a towel, and Mike decided that he’d had enough. Climbing out of bed half-naked, he sloshed (yes, sloshed, the carpet was that wet) his way across the room to his phone, and called the landlord. He glanced at the small digital clock next to the bed – 5:30 AM. Oh, yes, Mike thought, this is the last straw. Now, surely thinking there had been a fire or maybe even a murder, Ollie would answer, and Mike’s righteous anger would be unleashed.

Except that it wasn’t.

Thanks for givin’ Ollie a callie! I can’t come to the–”

Mike snapped the phone shut, maybe angrier than he’d ever been before in his life. And just then, he was hit by a maddening itch that swept across his whole body like a tidal wave. It seemed to move away from where he scratched, and his attempts to catch it only made it stronger. He also now noticed with growing horror that, at some point during the night, firm little bumps had popped up over most of his body. He scratched at them until they bled, but the itching continued unabated.

“Jane – “ he said, his voice wavering a little bit despite his best efforts, “Jane, I think I need to go to the hospital. Now.”

She whirled to face him, mindless of the water which now poured down on her bright red hair. The look she was giving him made Mike shiver; her green eyes lacked some ineffable light he thought they normally held. He shook it off, figuring it was just his stressed mind playing tricks.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” She asked him, but, her words aside, Mike could detect no hint of worry, no sign of honest concern. He tried shaking it off again; was less successful this time. He held out his arms, covered in bumps and in bloody scratches, then turned around so she could see his back.

Jane sighed sympathetically. “You just need some sleep,” she said. “I’m sure it will be better in the morning.”

“Look at me!” Mike responded incredulously, his voice rising to a near shout. “This isn’t normal! I’m going to the emergency room!”

Jane shrugged as he started off towards the door, grabbing a rain jacket on the way. He paused right in front of the doorway, halfway through putting his left arm into the sleeve, and wavered on his feet a little bit. He coughed.

“You know…” Mike started to say something, but then trailed off. He sniffed curiously at the air for a second, winced, and then walked back into the apartment, embracing Jane under the flow of the water from above.

At about that time, the couple’s next door neighbor, who worked the night shift as a nurse at the local hospital, passed by their door on her way home from work. She thought, for a moment, she could hear a gristly crunching within, as if a pair of giant jaws were taking long, slow bites out of a tough chunk of meat. But at the time, she thought nothing of it.

~~~

It was four days into February when Oliver Jones stopped by the apartment of two of his tenants, wheezing his way up to the door with a water vacuum in hand. He wasn’t sure if the residents of unit six – what were their names again?, he wondered – were still having problems with the leaky pipes; they hadn’t called him since that night two weeks or so before, but just in case, Ollie had decided he’d still at least drop off something to help them clean up.

Not that it was the main point of his visit. Being four days into February also meant that the rent was four days overdue. Ollie thought of himself as a friend to his tenants, so he always liked to try the “mention the rent while making a nice gesture” approach before writing threatening letters and demanding late fees.

He mopped some of the sweat off his forehead with a pudgy palm, then knocked on the door. But when his fingers touched the wood, it swung inward with a light creak. From within the apartment drifted a powerful, musty odor, and the sound of dripping water. He swallowed hard, peering into the darkness. Slowly, he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket – a resident list – and glanced down at it.

“Mr. Harris? Ms. Michaels? Hello, are you in there? It’s Ollie, your friendly landlord.”

No response except for a slow drip, drip, drip.

Ollie stepped through the doorway. The illumination cast by the dim hall lights was just enough for him to see the silhouette of what looked vaguely like a human shape, standing across the apartment right by where the dripping sounds were coming from. But there just wasn’t enough light for Ollie to really make out what it was, so he crept along the wall until he found a light switch, his feet squishing on the wet carpet as he did so.

When he got to the switch and turned the light on, Oliver Jones screamed.

There, under a long hole in the ceiling from which water leaked slowly and steadily, stood the bodies of apartment six’s former residents. They seemed to be embracing, but that wasn’t the main thing that caught Ollie’s attention. They were covered almost from head to toe in a weirdly grey-green colored fuzz, and out of their eyes, noses, and mouths, dozens of white stalks were growing, reaching up towards the water like a plant grows towards the sun.

Ollie stood there for a moment, shuddering, not entirely sure what he was seeing but still on the verge of vomiting. Then, he took a deep breath, wrenched himself away from the grotesque scene, and ran from the apartment as fast as he could. He called the police and told them he’d found the bodies of two of his tenants and wasn’t sure what the hell had happened to them, but that they needed to hurry. And, as Ollie stood outside waiting for the officers to arrive, he suddenly took off his shoe and started scratching at his foot. It itched something fierce.

~~~

What more is there to tell of this tale? The police arrived and promptly called the CDC, and the bodies were carted off by a team of people in HAZMAT suits. The apartment was thoroughly searched, and although the damp conditions of the apartment provided the perfect growing environment for certain species of zoophilic fungi – that is, those that feed on animals – no remaining trace of the fungus was found. Of course, nobody checked the air vents just above the apartment, where, among the pathways that circulated cool and warm air to the rest of the building, lay a particular feline’s white fuzz-covered body.

Cordyceps

In debates about the existence of God, it is often claimed that agnosticism is the only logical “belief” to hold, and that those who make positive assertions on either side of the debate (such as “god exists” or “god doesn’t exist”) are doing so on the basis of insufficient evidence. In fact, the only reason that agnosticism is seen as being, in a sense, utterly failsafe and fool-proof, is because it is not actually making an assertion. While I think that an agnostic attitude, which can foster a sense of humility and open-mindedness, is helpful in most areas of life, I don’t think that is true in the context of the God debate, and I offer here a refutation of agnosticism (in terms of what claims are reasonable).

The basic form of the argument is as follows:

1. God, as commonly defined, is an internally incoherent concept.

2. It is unreasonable to state that an internally incoherent concept is or might be a reality.

3. A definition of God modified to not be incoherent would not be God in any meaningful sense.

4. Hence, it is unreasonable to assert that God’s existence is or might be a reality.

Support for premises

1. God, as commonly defined, is an internally incoherent concept.

So, what is meant by “God as commonly defined”? That would be God as conceived of in the most popular contemporary religions (Christianity and Islam). Typically, in these traditions, God is defined as being the omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), omnibenevolent (all good), and omnipresent (everywhere all at once) creator of the Universe. He is also considered by most to have given humans free-will, though belief in free will differs somewhat within faiths.

How is this concept internally incoherent? Firstly, the state of the world today is incompatible with the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being. 925 million people are starving to death, many more are malnourished, and that’s just the beginning of the suffering that exists on Earth. If there were a God who had the power to end this suffering, and really had the will to do so, it follows that suffering would not exist. Thus, the world as we know it is incompatible with the concept of God we have been presented.

It might be countered that God’s ways are “higher than ours,” and that suffering might be part of his plan for us. To that I would respond that since God is omnipotent, he could easily have created a Universe in which no suffering was ever necessary.  Because he created a Universe in which suffering exists, he could not possibly be omnibenevolent. The word simply would not apply, as, in combination with omnipotence, it is not compatible with the existence of any suffering at all.

This is what is known traditionally as the “problem of evil.” I believe that it constitutes a firm refutation of the concept of an all-good and all-powerful god, and that the only reason it remains a “problem” is that people want to believe in said God anyway.

The second inconsistency is also ancient, and is known as the problem of free-will. If God, our creator, is all knowing and all powerful, the objection goes, it is absolutely impossible for us to have free will. In what sense could our will be free, if God created us KNOWING how we would behave if created in that manner?

This problem can only be avoided by either revoking God’s omniscience or by stating that we have no free will. If we have no free will, it is impossible to reconcile the belief in a supposedly benevolent God who creates people knowing they will just end up in hell.

Some Christians have denied that hell exists, instead believing that non-believers’ souls are simply annihilated. This, however, does not solve the problem, as it’s obviously better to end up in Heaven than non-existence, and god would have created some souls knowing that they would be annihilated.

If God exists, but is not all-knowing (as the other side of the free-will debate my say under rare circumstances), then he/she/it is fallible, and not exactly worthy of the term “God.”

So far, we have shown how the concept of God, as meant by the majority in contemporary usage, is internally incoherent, by showing how the various attributes of God cannot be reconciled. Now we move on to:

2. It is unreasonable to state that an internally incoherent concept is or could be a reality.

Rationality is in a way dependent upon internal coherency. Arguments purport to tell us that something is one way rather than another and internal incoherence results in a sort of self-refuting statement; God, if omniscient, can no more have given us free will than 2 + 2 can be equal to 5, or than a triangle can have 4 sides.

 

3. A definition of God modified to not be incoherent would not be God in any meaningful sense.

Here, we are getting into the problem of defining a word that has been used in vastly different contexts and cultures throughout history (is the Christian God, for example, really the same sort of entity as Loki, the Norse god of mischief)? But the fact is that if he loses any one of those traits, God becomes fallible and imperfect. It makes no sense, for instance, to say that an all-loving God created certain people knowing they would burn in hell (or be obliterated if you’re one of the 10% of nice Christians that believe in a semi-merciful God). And, on the other side of it, if God’s not all-loving then he becomes less of a personal overseer and more of a chaotic force of the Universe.

So why, when someone says they believe in God, and means “chaotic force of the Universe” should we say that definition is invalid? If the word is to have any utility at all, it must be referring to a thing (or concept) with specific properties. In other words, the definitions of words should be generally agreed upon in order for them to have any usefulness. Someone who used this definition would have to explain how their “chaotic forces” differed from energy in Physics, and why adopting a term as loaded as “God” should be necessary.

If a discussion over whether or not God exists is to be had, we will need to define God somehow. In order to do this in the most useful way, we should look at how the majority of people use the word, by looking to the conceptions of God in the world’s most popular religions (described above). That definition (i.e. the set of properties I attributed to God) holds well for the culture in which I live; if my definition differed significantly, then the word would use its utility as it would be too far from meeting the criteria other people set for their concept of “God.”  Put in terms of an analogy, if you went to a restaurant and said “I want a beer,” and then, when they served it to you, complained that you meant something made of fermented grapes, they would probably say “that’s not beer, that’s wine.” Your usage of “beer” in this personal sense, unique to you, impeded your ability to communicate. Hence the word uses its sense outside of poetic usage.

The point is that questions about God’s existence, if they are going to be debated at all, should be conducted within a well-defined framework. The answer “I’m agnostic because there might be SOME higher power out there” is so hopelessly vague that it’s not really good for anything. Unless characteristics are specified, there’s no criteria for discussion.

The fact that “god” is an ill-defined word is not an argument for agnosticism, either, just as the fact that fantasy writers have made all sorts of different elves isn’t an argument for agnosticism about whether or not elves exist.

 

4. Hence, it is unreasonable to assert that God’s existence is or might be a reality.

We have seen how the most popular religions define God, how the attributes that they assign to God are contradictory and irreconcilable, why it’s unreasonable to assert the existence of anything contradictory, and how a definition of God that eliminates any of those contradictory elements wouldn’t be a satisfactory definition of God in this culture. A definition of “God” in another culture would have to be debated separately, but on this note I’ve also tried to argue that debates on the existence of God, if they are to occur at all, should be had only with specific definitions in mind, lest the terms confuse more than communicate.

Some might complain that simply stating that belief in God is “unreasonable” is still not expressing the atheist line, due to not directly saying “there definitely is not a god.” I would respond to that by saying that just as “God” implies certain things, “agnostic” implies a certain attitude. It would be strange, for example, for me to say I was agnostic about the existence of an invisible bowtie orbiting my computer monitor. While I can’t technically disprove it, I have no reason to even try as the assertion makes no sense.

Solipsism is arguably philosophy’s most haunting question.  Ethical theories that assert a moral obligation to others, for instance, collapse if it is true, as does any attempt to assert a knowable noumenal reality. And yet, despite the problems posed by this representative of the larger trend of skepticism, the problem of solipsism remains largely overlooked, probably due to a conviction that it is unanswerable. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, in Being and Nothingness, that “…Kant and the majority of post-Kantians continue to affirm the existence of the Other. But they can refer only to common sense or to our deep-rooted tendencies to justify their affirmation.” (Sartre 311)

Does the empirical irrefutability of solipsism make it a philosophical dead-end? An intensive linguistic analysis of the problem by Ludwig Wittgenstein in The Blue Book shows us that we have much to learn from even considering the question. There are, in fact, a host of implicit ontological assumptions involved both in postulating and in rejecting solipsism, and by disentangling them, Wittgenstein succeeds in clarifying what, exactly, we mean when we refer to ourselves.

He states the problem posed by the solipsist as such:

“Now the man whom we call a solipsist and who says that only his own experiences are real, does not thereby disagree with us about any practical question of fact, he does not say that we are simulating when we complain of pains, he pities us as much as anyone else, and at the same time he wishes to restrict the use of the epithet “real” to what we should call his experiences; and perhaps he doesn’t want to call our experiences “experiences” at all. For he would say that it was inconceivable that experiences other than his own were real.” (Wittgenstein 59)

Firstly, what does he mean when he says that the solipsist “does not… disagree with us about any practical question of fact”? From the following sentences, it’s apparent that he means two things: that to the solipsist, those who speak of their pains are not lying, and that all external means of verifying their pain (such as their behavior, or their neurological states) will appear to show its existence.

Even granted this, however, there appears to be some unbridgeable gap between the solipsist and the Other which prevents the former from calling the latter’s experiences “real.” What is the cause of this linguistic dichotomy? How does one decide which experiences are “real,” and which are not, or rather, what are the criteria necessary for calling an experience “real”? Wittgenstein, following his methodology of defining words based on their utility, demonstrates an application of the “real/unreal” distinction:

The solipsist’s suggestion comes to using such a phrase as “there is a real toothache” instead of “Smith (the solipsist) has a toothache” …The solipsist who says “only I feel real pain”, “only I really see (or hear) is not stating an opinion; and that’s why he is so sure of what he says. (Wittgenstein 60)

 

By formulating his sentence in this way (“there is a real toothache”, rather than “I have a toothache” ) the solipsist is then making a sort of depersonalized ontological assertion, about what it means for a toothache to exist. And it immediately becomes clear what Wittgenstein means when he says that the solipsist is “not stating an opinion.” The primary constituent of a real toothache is pain, and if no pain is felt by the solipsist when the Other complains of a toothache, then how can he say it is a real toothache? There is a clear phenomenal difference between feeling pain, and seeing an object in the visual field (the Other, in this case) displaying behaviors associated with that feeling – if both experiences belong solely to the solipsist in question, then it is clear why he must label the Other’s “pain” as something else entirely.

Douglas Harding illustrates another example of this real/unreal distinction, using visual experiences, in his essay On Having No Head:

“The truth is that the verb to see has two quite opposite meanings. When we observe a couple conversing, we say they see each other, though their faces remain intact and some feet apart, but when I see you your face is all, mine nothing.” (Hofstadter and Dennett 30)

 

In other words, when I experience what Wittgenstein would call “really seeing,” I cannot see my own face. If I look at another’s face, I will only see their face, never my own (hence “your face is all, mine nothing”). Real sight is a direct, first-person conscious experience, as opposed to the other meaning of the verb “to see,” which is third-person.

The first-person experience is a precondition for the third-person attributing of experience to others; there must be self-consciousness in order for there to be consciousness of others who are conscious.

The question is further complicated by the usage of phrases such as “having an experience,” which attribute experiences to people as though they were possessions:

“ ‘A has a gold tooth’ means that the tooth is in A’s mouth. This may account for the fact that I am not able to see it. Now the case of his toothache, of which I say that I am not able to feel it because it is in his mouth, is not analogous to the case of the gold tooth. It is the apparent analogy, and again the lack of analogy, between these cases that causes our trouble.” (Wittgenstein 49)

If we look in A’s mouth, we will not find his “real pain,” nor will we do so if we crack open his skull and examine his brain. Is there any way, then, for A’s experiences to be revealed to me, in the same way that my experiences are revealed to myself? Wittgenstein considers a thought experiment:

“…suppose I and someone else had a part of our bodies in common, say a hand. Imagine the nerves and tendons of my arm and A’s connected to this hand by an operation. Now imagine the hand stung by a wasp. Both of us cry, contort our faces, give the same descriptions of the pain, etc. Now are we to say we have the same pain or different ones? If in such a case you say: ‘we feel pain in the same place, in the same body, our descriptions tally, but still my pain can’t be his’, I suppose as a reason you will be inclined to say: “because my pain is my pain and his pain is his pain.’” (Wittgenstein 54)

 

If this tautological separation of experiences based on identity holds, then there is really no way of escaping solipsism. The existence of the Other’s perception is relegated to a non-physical plane of existence, causally impotent and phenomenally undetectable by the solipsist (the one whose first-person perspective is being experienced, in the “real” sense described above). How, Wittgenstein asks, could a “hypothesis that transcends all possible experience… be backed by meaning? (Is it not like paper money, not backed by gold?)” (Wittgenstein 48)

In order to envision the implications of this in greater detail, we can imagine a related thought experiment in which the brain of the solipsist is connected to the brains of three other individuals, such that when they feel any pain, he feels it as well. Even though the solipsist would be feeling the pains of their bodies, he would still assert that he doesn’t know that they are experiencing the pains. He is experiencing real pain, yes, in the first person sense, but he is still experiencing that pain as himself.

Let’s see if this identity gap can be bridged by adding yet another connection between all four brains, allowing each brain access to the memories of all the others.  Now there can be no clear division between the identities of the four; the solipsist and the Other have essentially dissolved into one another. Nevertheless, this still would not be sufficient to convince him that the Other’s experiences are real. For the moment those memories and immediate experiences enter the solipsist’s stream-of-consciousness, they belong to the solipsist, who cannot verify that those memories ever existed prior to the connection being made. To verify the Other’s experiences as real, the solipsist must experience being the Other, and once the solipsist has experienced being the Other, the experiences are no longer the Other’s. They enter the solipsist’s stream of consciousness and further strengthen his hypothesis.

Daniel Dennett makes this point in an indirect way, when discussing methods by which we might become convinced that someone else sees colors in the same way we do (“qualia” is a word for the subjective properties of experience, such as what the color red looks like):

“Suppose… there were some neuroscientific apparatus that fits on your head and feeds your visual experience into my brain… With eyes closed I accurately report everything you are looking at, except that I marvel at how the sky is yellow, the grass red, and so forth. Would this not confirm, empirically, that our qualia were different? But suppose the technician then pulls the plug on the connecting cable, inverts it 180 degrees and reinserts it in the socket. Now I report the sky is blue, the grass green, and so forth. Which is the “right” orientation of the plug? Designing and building such a device would require that its “fidelity” be tuned or calibrated by the normalization of the two subjects’ reports–so we would be right back at our evidential starting point.” (Dennett)

 

Fundamentally, there can be no verification of the facts about another’s experience, because there can be no direct comparison of two streams of consciousness simultaneously. In order for a comparison to occur, there would have to be a common reference point by which each could be judged, and that common reference point cannot be anything different than what we always use to make judgments: our direct, first-person perception, and our memories of past experiences (both of which, in this case belong to the solipsist).

If the solipsist cannot be given an adequate rebuttal to his assertions (such as Wittgenstein’s “only what I see is really seen”) even by becoming the Other in the fullest sense (that would still allow him to consider the question) then there must be something deeply flawed about either the concept of other minds, or about our conceptions of ourselves, to which we attribute experiences like possessed objects. In order to address the latter possibility, Wittgenstein launches into an exploration of what is meant by the word “I” in the solipsist’s claim that “when anything is seen, it is always I who see:”

“What is it I want all these cases of seeing to have in common? As an answer I have to confess to myself that it is not my bodily appearance. I don’t always see part of my body when I see. And it isn’t essential that my body, if seen amongst the things I see, should always look the same… And I feel the same way about all the properties of my body, the characteristics of my behavior, and even about my memories. (Wittgenstein 63)”

 

What is being questioned here is the very cornerstone assumption of all classical discussions about personal identity: that experiences belong to people. Wittgenstein is suggesting that, even if all of the things that I believe constitute my self are changed, the experience of seeing remains essentially the same; or, put differently, that instances of sight (visual experiences), cannot be assigned to particular identities:

“When I think about it a little longer I see that what I wished to say was: “Always when anything is seen, something is seen”. I.e., that of which I said it continued during all the experiences of seeing was not any particular entity “I”, but the experience of seeing itself.” (Wittgenstein 63)

 

Sight, and all other “real” sensory experiences do not belong to anyone, they simply exist. This is a powerful way of countering the traditional view of solipsism, in which the solipsist’s individual ego is the limit of all reality. At the same time, it leads to a conclusion implicating something quite similar to solipsism, in which all peoples’ phenomenal lives fall within the larger experience of the world, by something like a world-soul:

“I could also express my claim by saying : ‘I am the vessel of life’… I could almost say that by ‘I’ I mean something which just now inhabits L.W., something which the others can’t see.” (Wittgenstein 65-66)

 

This, in fact, seems to be the only alternative to classical solipsism.  For we have seen through the examples given by Wittgenstein and Dennett that the existence of other minds is a hypothesis that transcends the limits of all possible experience. No amount of phenomenological reflection, or neurological investigation could, even with perfect technology, reveal the existence of more than one stream of consciousness or subject of experience.

Furthermore, Wittgenstein has just shown that the first-person experience of seeing, “real” seeing, does not depend on one’s identity, and cannot depend on identity if other people are said to perceive in the first-person sense. “I” does not refer to any particular bodily form (our own body does not appear in our field of vision, it could be changed without altering the experience of sight), any particular name (“real sight” would be presumably left unchanged if the solipsist were to be called something different) and even a particular brain (our own brain states change endlessly, yet the chain of experience remains unbroken).  Rather, “I” refers to the center of the phenomenal world, the perspective from which experiences exist.

There is a striking similarity between the methodology used by Wittgenstein to reach this concept of a generic, first-person subject of experience, and the arguments used in the ancient Hindu texts of the Upanishads to illustrate the nature of Brahman (ultimate reality). According to the Upanishads, ultimate reality is identical to “atman,” or the Self.  Just as Wittgenstein’s “vessel of life” is that which always “really sees,” but is not assignable to any particular name or bodily appearance, so too the Self is the ineffable center of experience:

“Him our eyes cannot see, nor words express; He cannot be grasped even by the mind… That which makes the eye see but cannot be thought by the mind, that is the Self indeed. This Self is not someone other than you.” (Baird and Heimbeck 42)

We arrived at the notion of the “vessel of life” by imagining various ways in which we, in an attempt to refute solipsism, might become convinced of the Other’s experience through becoming him and having his experiences. This led to the conclusion that “real,” first-person sensory experiences cannot be limited by the myriad changing factors such as name and appearance, and also that the supposition of other streams of consciousness was empty speculation, ending up with a conception of personal identity that allows us to attribute experiences to other bodies without positing other minds.

Similarly, the authors of the Upanishads arrive at the unchanging Self, the eternally present subject that is ultimate reality, through a negation of all those parts of our identity that change throughout the continuation of our experience. This line of thought is illustrated clearly in chapter 8 of the Chandogya Upanishad, through a dialogue between the sage Prajapati and his student Indra.

Prajapati successively identifies the Self with various parts of a person’s identity, leading Indra to the realization that eternal, ultimate reality cannot be limited in such ways. First, he tells Indra that the Self is the body, and Indra replies:

“If the Self is well-dressed when the body is well dressed, well adorned when the body is well adorned, then the Self will be blind when the body is blind, lame when the body is lame, paralyzed when the body is paralyzed. And when the body dies, the Self too will die. In such knowledge I see no value.” (Baird and Heimbeck 28)

Next, Prajapati tells Indra that the Self is the experience of the dream-state, to which Indra responds:

“…in the dreaming state, it is true, the Self is not blind when the body is blind, nor lame when the body is lame; yet in this state the Self may still suffer and even weep. In such knowledge I see no value.” (Baird and Heimbeck 29)

Prajapati then goes a step further in removing the Self from the individual ego, by telling Indra that the Self is the state of dreamless sleep. Once again, however, Indra is wise to the deception:

“’Venerable One,’ replied Indra, ‘in the state of dreamless sleep one is not aware of oneself or of any other. The state of dreamless sleep is very close to extinction. In this knowledge I see no value.'” (Baird and Heimbeck 29)

After Indra sees through this final level of falsely identifying the Self with facets of bodily and individual experience, Prajapati gives Indra his final teaching on the Self:

“It is true that the body is perishable, but within it dwells the imperishable Self… Like the wind, like clouds, like thunder and lightning, which rise from space without physical shape and reach the transcendent light in their own form, those who rise above body-consciousness ascend to the transcendent light in their real form, the Self.” (Baird and Heimbeck 29)

The Self is Brahman, the self-illuminating Universal consciousness that is all being. This is directly identifiable with the subject of real first-person experience, which as Wittgenstein demonstrated, is not equivalent or analogous in the least to a possession held or owned by any one person. In fact, the generic first-person perspective is less a “subject” than a self-referential assertion that experience is occurring; in the same way that “always when anything is seen, something is seen,” anything that is experienced is experienced. I do not have the experience of being here (for we saw that “having” experience is a troublesome grammatical proposition); rather, the experience of being me, here, objectively exists.

This analysis carries all the more weight coming from a philosopher generally disparaging of metaphysical speculation. For the above passages are not speculation at all; they are a phenomenological investigation of that which is already given in experience (and has been given in experience throughout all of human history, upon which our metaphysical ideas are based). Solipsism as Wittgenstein says, “strictly carried out, coincides with pure realism.” (Biletzki 67)

The notion of the generic first-person subject, which I have argued Wittgenstein expresses, echoes not only the Self of the Upanishads, but other ideas written of by philosophers throughout the centuries, such as Averroes’ monopsychism, and Parmenides’ One. By clarifying the subtleties of our language usage underlying the conventions of identity, we can reach a view of ourselves that is logically coherent and spiritually satisfying.

 

Bibliography

Baird, Forrest, and Raeburne Heimbeck. Asian Philosophy. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearoson Education Inc., 2006. 389.

Biletzki, Anat. Over Interpreting Wittgenstein. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003.

Dennett, Daniel. “Quining Qualia.” Tufts University Center for Cognitive Studies. Tufts University. Web. 24 Oct 2011. <http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/quinqual.htm&gt;.

Hofstadter, Douglas, and Daniel Dennett. The Mind’s I. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1981. 30.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York, NY: Washington Square Press, 1943. 311.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. The Blue and Brown Books. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1960.

 

“I know this sounds like metaphysical megalomania of an unusually shameless kind. Merely being [Thomas Nagel] isn’t good enough for me: I have to think of myself as the world soul in humble disguise. In mitigation I can plead only that the same thought is available to any of you. You are all subjects of the centerless Universe and mere human or Martian identity should seem to you arbitrary.”

-Thomas Nagel

The threads of ontology, philosophy of mind, and personal identity are inextricably woven together; by which I mean, our view of one of these automatically makes presumptions about or informs our view of the others. The problem of personal identity over time, for instance, arises from linguistic conventions that presuppose a certain (hidden) view of substance and mind. What follows is an analysis of implicit ontological assumptions (not necessarily justified) that arise when discussing personal identity, and how these assumptions must be modified in light of a non-dualistic solution to the mind-body problem.

Let’s begin with a discussion of solipsism (the idea that my experience is the only experience that’s real), as it perfectly exemplifies the way in which these various views all inform each other. A statement is made asserting the non-existence of viewpoints (ontology) other than my own (identity). On the one hand, it seems absurd to deny that others do not experience anything. You are mugged; an event which does not benefit you, but benefits others – doesn’t this provide good evidence that others have motives and experience desires? You’re stabbed, you cry out, and you feel pain – doesn’t this provide good evidence that when I’m stabbed, and cry out, I probably feel pain too? On the other hand, solipsism is widely considered to be irrefutable. Why? Because solipsism represents the ultimate skeptical viewpoint: that can only be said to exist which is directly experienced – and the only way for me to directly experience the existence of your perspective would be to BE you, which would entail the forgetting of all the experiences that constitute my identity. If I were you, I would once again be in the same position, but from the opposite perspective.

Thus, we might conclude that solipsism is useless precisely because of its irrefutability: what we would expect to see if it were the case and what we would expect to see if it were not are identical. But in making this conclusion, we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves; allowing ourselves to be carried away by the logical manipulation of ill-defined words. For instance, what does it really mean for me to deny that your viewpoint exists? What constitutes the existence of a viewpoint? A passage by Douglas Harding, in his essay On Having No Head, points out a discrepancy that might help illuminate the problem:

“The truth is that the verb to see has two quite opposite meanings. When we observe a couple conversing, we say they see each other, though their faces remain intact and some feet apart, but when I see you your face is all, mine nothing.”

In other words, there are two ways in which we interchangeably use the same phrase, “to see:” one of them is first-person and the other is third-person. When we see two people looking at each other, we use the phrase “they see each other” in a different way than we use the term “I see them.” Their seeing of each other is an assumption that we may be correctly said to make based on certain given facts: neither of them is blind, they are both in close range of each other, their faces are pointed towards each other, and their eyes are open. But these all apply to the behavior of objects in our visual field – we may be seeing them see each other, but we are not seeing their sight of each other.

And this is what it means to have a perspective – to use perceptual verbs in the first-person sense. If I were really seeing them seeing each other, then I would experience three visual fields simultaneously: one of me looking at them, and one for each of them looking at each other.

A similar outlook is expressed by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, ever mindful of the precision of language use, in The Blue Book:

“Sometimes the most satisfying expression of our solipsism seems to be this: ‘when anything is seen (really seen) it is always I who see it’… Now let us ask ourselves what sort of identity of personality it is we are referring to when we say ‘when anything is seen, it is always I who see.’ What is it I want all these cases of seeing to have in common? …When I think about it a little longer I see that what I wished to say was: ‘Always when anything is seen, something is seen’. I.e., that of which I said it continued during all the experiences of seeing was not any particular entity ‘I’, but the experience of seeing itself.”

Solipsism denies this sort of experience to other people, but the interesting part is that, unraveling the subtleties of language, we see that solipsism and the traditional view of personal identity (i.e. that we are all each separate people, with experiences of the world forever divided from one another) amount to the same thing; that is, the denial of the existence of sight (as I know and experience it) from certain perspectives. For instance, if I stand side-by-side with a friend in the hallway of my house, I should expect not only that I, identified in my thoughts as Jeff, am seeing the hallway from angle X, but that my friend, identified with his own name in his thoughts, is seeing (actually seeing, in the first-person sense) the hallway from angle Y – but if our identities are fundamentally different, and my experience is forever closed off from his, then that is simply not the case. Even if we were both hooked up to brain and body scanners, ensuring me that nearly identical neurological processes were occurring in each of us, my perception of the hallway from angle X is what would actually be occurring in first-person, whereas his, differing only by a slight degree of angle and self-concept, would not ever occur.

It is tempting to say that he would experience a first-person view, but that it would simply not ever be available to me, as my experience is in my mind, and his is in his mind, privately available only to him. But this is where the non-dualist solution to the mind-body problem comes in: if we deny Descartes’ res cogitans, or mind-stuff, then the inner-stage on which such other perceptions could occur is eradicated. There simply is no inside of my mind as opposed to outside in the world; there are only neurological processes naturally occurring in the physical world, which has no inside or outside.

We might, then, be led to say “but the physiological process of sight is occurring in two different places, in two different brains. Your first-person experience is the physiological process occurring in this brain, which is different from that one.” True. But if seeing is supposed to be happening in both places at once, then why is this (the hallway, as well as the machine’s readouts, from angle X) what is being seen as opposed to that (the same, from angle Y) at the given time?

If, then, we take the traditional view of personal identity (so often wrongly seen as the opposite of solipsism), then the set of experiences actually had, in all of eternity, will be limited to my own; those identified with J.H., born on May 12, 1989, dying at some undetermined point in the future. At that point, belief in the existence of other perspectives is like belief in God – faith-based and unfalsifiable. It is not solipsism which is useless because of its irrefutability; it is the belief in other minds.

So what does a denial of solipsism really amount to? What does it mean to attribute the existence of the first-person viewpoint to other people?  It would essentially mean that all experience can be said to occur from a generic first-person viewpoint which has, at some times and places, certain memories, and at other times and places has different memories. So, when I am standing next to my friend in the hallway, both perspectives are experienced in the first person sense, but the viewings are not co-conscious (just as my current view of writing this on the computer is not co-conscious with an experience of myself in, say, middle school), and each experience includes different memories. The division between people falls to mere social convention. Oddly enough, we find that this is already somewhat the case within our own, normally-conceived every day lives. Not all of my memories are available to me at any given instant, and I am certainly separated from my past self and past instances of first-person seeing by vast amounts of time and space.

All of our knowledge of the world is structured on our experience; networked through language, each individual ego attempts to gain an idea of the others and define its relationship to the whole. But we can’t suppose that there is really, substantially more there than the subject describing itself. Using the best methods it could to attain objectivity, humanity searched for the truth and found only itself looking.

The concept of the generic first-“person” subject of experience we have arrived at is very reminiscent of Parmenides’ One in The Way of Truth: always present, without beginning or end, as what exists. But, just like in The Way of Opinion, or appearance, false divisions arise; the illusion of separateness, variety, coming and going.

This post was originally written as a response to a debate about “Open Individualism” on another web page. Open Individualism is the idea expressed in the post below; that all subjects or numerically identical, sometimes phrased as “there is only one mind which is everybody.”

~~~

In debates about personal identity and philosophy of mind, much is made of the fact that brain states produce mental states; thus, states produced by different brains are discretely different. However, this is not at all a limiting factor to viewing all minds as one. The primary reason is that there are a multitude of hidden dualist assmptions in the argument. Dualism haunts philosophy of mind like a specter; it’s seductive to talk about “our minds” or “mental states” (that the brain somehow manages to produce), but all of these conceptions, if seriously questioned, become suspect for the same reasons that Descartes “res cogitans” did. Look, for instance, in the physical description of sight, and you will find no place in the recount of the electrochemical reactions between the optic nerve and the brain where “seeing” can be slipped in. So whose “mind” are we talking about? How much sense does it make to assign an enduring core essence, or mysterious inner-stage of experience, to what science tells us are merely reproducing machines in the natural world; the physical Universe, which has no inside or outside?

It might sound like I’m arguing against the existence of mental states, or qualia. In one way, I am — I don’t think that qualia, phenomenal properties, or mental states should have any place in scientific descriptions of the brain, and serve absolutely no causal role. But if we are going to make an ontological claim, such as that the physical world is all that exists, then we have to ask “what is the physical world, and why do we believe in it?”

Berkeley made powerful arguments for the idea that what we call “matter” reduces entirely to our experience of it; if there were some extra-sensory reality, no knowledge could be had of it in principle. Even things such as dark matter, or subatomic particles (which we normally consider beyond the bounds of our sensory experience) have been detected only using instruments which are basically custom-designed sense organs. It’s all well and good to state that the Universe “would be there even if no one was looking,” but this idea is unfalsifiable and so cannot be considered scientifically viable.
This is the most radical form of empiricism — not admitting the existence of that which is not directly experienced. But, in the end, science doesn’t need anything more than radical empiricism; all scientific advances are built upon hypothesis and experimentation, which, again, amounts to experience (designing experiments, reading and analyzing results, etc). At no point has anything extra-sensory come into the picture… ever. The best we can say is that the Universe looks as if it has been around for 16 billion years before the first conscious observer; however, it only looks that way from the perspective of the observer who is undeniably here reading this in the present moment.

Matter is a way of abstracting and talking about experience; of predicting what experiences we will have in the future (what results will be read in future experiments, etc) and of placing what happened in the past in that context.
So we end up realizing that a monistic view such as physicalism doesn’t destroy consciousness, or deny it — it simply equates what we call “consciousness” with the world. What you choose to call the substance of the world (whether it be mind, matter, god, or even flamingos) is arbitrary, because as Wittgenstein so aptly pointed out, words are only useful insofar as they exclude a possible alternative. There is no possible alternative to the substance that makes up everything, so it doesn’t make sense to use discriminatory language (“mind” as opposed to “matter,” or vice-versa) because there is nothing else to compare it with.

If what we call “consciousness” is no-thing, but is equated with the world in this way, it makes as little sense to say that a brain (and hence its states) “belongs” to any one person as it would to say any one drop of water “belongs” to one ocean, rather than another.

So physicalism, stripped of implicit dualism that has the tendency to sneak in from time to time, actually supports the idea that divisions of personal identity (“you” as opposed to “me”) are arbitrary. The existence of other minds is an illusion, not terribly unlike Kant’s transcendental illusion (or the geocentric illusion). There are many other arguments which could be made; this just a very brief sketch. Read Iacopo Vettori’s papers, or Kolak’s book “I Am You”, for some fascinating, in-depth analysis of the idea.

Here [Alice] checked herself in some alarm, at hearing something that sounded to her like the puffing of a large steam-engine in the wood near them, though she feared it was more likely to be a wild beast. ‘Are there any lions or tigers about here?’ she asked timidly.

‘It’s only the Red King snoring,’ said Tweedledee.

‘Come and look at him!’ the brothers cried, and they each took one of Alice’s hands, and led her up to where the King was sleeping.

‘Isn’t he a lovely sight?’ said Tweedledum.

Alice couldn’t say honestly that he was. He had a tall red night-cap on, with a tassel, and he was lying crumpled up into a sort of untidy heap, and snoring loud— ‘fit to snore his head off!’ as Tweedledum remarked.

‘I’m afraid he’ll catch cold with lying on the damp grass,’ said Alice, who was a very thoughtful little girl.

‘He’s dreaming now,’ said Tweedledee: ‘and what do you think he’s dreaming about?’

Alice said ‘Nobody can guess that.’

‘Why, about you!’ Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. ‘And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?’

‘Where I am now, of course,’ said Alice.

‘Not you!’ Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. ‘You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!’

‘If that there King was to wake,’ added Tweedledum, ‘you’d go out— bang!—just like a candle!’

‘I shouldn’t!’ Alice exclaimed indignantly. ‘Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?’

‘Ditto,’ said Tweedledum.

‘Ditto, ditto!’ cried Tweedledee.

He shouted this so loud that Alice couldn’t help saying ‘Hush! You’ll be waking him, I’m afraid, if you make so much noise.’

‘Well, it’s no use your talking about waking him,’ said Tweedledum, ‘when you’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real.’

‘I am real!’ said Alice, and began to cry.

‘You won’t make yourself a bit realer by crying,’ Tweedledee remarked: ‘there’s nothing to cry about.’

‘If I wasn’t real,’ Alice said—half laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous—’I shouldn’t be able to cry.’

‘I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears?’ Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

All science and human knowledge amounts to description, not explanation, because matter and energy can’t be created or destroyed. Physics only describes their behavior to an arbitrary length back in time (16 billion years). The Big Bang isn’t when existence began, it’s just where our physics begins to be able to describe the behavior of objects. There is fundamentally no answer to the question “why does existence exist?” other than “it just does.” It has no beginning or end.

“Your” experiences are just brain states composed of matter and energy; you in Situation X at time t1 and you in situation Y at time t2 belong to two numerically distinct people, given that they occur in different places in space and at different times. You aren’t the same person as you used to be, and yet there is a sense of continuity; nothing is lost.

All dualities must have some common criteria by which they can be evaluated… opposites are not really opposites, but two aspects of a single reality. Logical thought, by which divisions (and thereby identities) are formed is fallible; all premises can be questioned until no certainty of any fact remains.

Nevertheless, we confidently tell stories about what things are “actually” like, who we are, naming things which are in constant flux and drawing causal connections which, although they may help us navigate the world of our experience, are ultimately baseless. Does this mean our thinking creates reality? I would say it’s more a very transient way of reality considering itself.

The whole Universe is dreaming; it’s dreaming that it’s me sitting here, writing these words, and it’s dreaming that it’s you reading them.

Many of those people who find themselves inwardly focused begin, at a certain age, to critically evaluate the belief systems they were brought up in. These belief systems are comprised of layers of faith, and are the foundation of an individual’s reality. Throughout their life, most people pick and choose which beliefs to discard based on little more than personal preference; they are able to relinquish certain faiths without fear of damaging others. But is there any criteria for choosing which beliefs to hold and which to abandon other than personal preference? If not, we must choose whether to believe in everything, or to believe in nothing. Are either of these options viable?

It’s my belief that no belief can be certain, and so, initially, it would seem that I have judged all faiths equal and invalid. This would not be quite accurate, however, for it leaves out entirely the context in which the belief is being held. More on this later. Regardless of the criteria by which beliefs are judged, neither belief in everything nor belief in nothing are viable options, for the simple reason that the definition precludes itself (belief in nothing is still a belief in something- namely, the invalidity of all beliefs; belief in everything is no better as it too leaves out the question of context). This is a bit deceiving, however, for the invalidity of the “belief in nothing” position stems only from the language. A position that is quite justified would be a sort of absolute agnosticism, one which gives no answers because the question is meaningless.

This position of absolute agnosticism is the natural result of the equal abandonment of all faiths. Those atheists who confidently declare that “this is all we get, death is eternal nothingness” are nearly as far removed from this position as those of a religious persuasion; faith in a pessimistic viewpoint is no more justified than faith in an optimistic viewpoint.

Anyway, in subsequent posts I plan to outline why no belief can be certain, what I mean by “context” in relation to beliefs, and I will elaborate on the position of absolute agnosticism.

 

Buy your apathetic suicide at $4 a pack and fill your lungs with poison. Turn on the telescreen and fill your brain with lies. Let the priests tell you what you should believe, that their “just” god will torture you eternally for your finite little life if you don’t jump when he says “jump.” Worship your protectors as they comfort you with billy clubs, smiling paternally behind their helmets and face-shields.

When did wanting to live become waiting to die? The clear-eyed anticipation of a journey to the end of a three-dimensional rainbow is buried under 20,000 leagues of mud and shit; we’re drowning as we try to breathe money and sex, and our hope is only that the fulfillment of our desires will erase our minds. Fill your cup, pour it out,  fill your cup, pour it out, fill your FUCKING CUP AND POUR IT OUT. Listen to me. Listen to me! The economy needs YOU. The army needs YOU. You’re not patriotic unless you’re blowing up children. You’re not happy unless you’re sitting on a pile of dead bodies and broken cell phones. You’re not a person unless you can draw your outline in smog and magazines.

Excitement is now at the bottom of the tar pit.  And love?

This is a story about a man named God.

God the Traveler

Part I.

The brown and green carpet of the world was patterned with swirls, twisting endlessly across the desert of the floor. The walls were white plaster near the back of the cabin and mahogany towards the front, decorated on the left wall with a tasteful, though generic, still-life painting depicting a bowl of fruit.

The door that God had never seen opened was also white, though an off white subtly different from the other whites in the room, like the difference between eggshells and piano keys. The back wall consisted of a large porthole looking out on an undulating stone-colored sea, a liquid Stonehenge reflecting a nearly identical sky.

All signs pointed to his inexplicable imprisonment aboard what he deemed a high-class cruise ship, and a clock next to the painting conveniently informed him how long he’d been trapped there.

Towards the earlier part of his memory, he didn’t even care what kind of ship he was on, or why, or if it even was a ship. He amused himself by endlessly drawing patterns and stories in the dust gathering on the drawers and table. The stories he wrote were about other Gods trapped in other ship cabins, which were furnished differently. In one case he wrote a story set in a room below the water- that had been his most challenging (for it required thinking of everything as mirror-images).

After twenty years, he ceased sketching stories in the dust for amusement. His messages became vast, elaborate constructions; desperate attempts to catch the attention of something, somewhere, that could rescue him.

He shattered the glass ashtray left on the small table at the room’s center, such that one of the pieces displayed dagger-like properties (after a failure to produce such a piece, he could go to sleep and the ashtray would be restored by the time he awakened).

Taking the dagger-like shard of glass, he shaved slivers of wood from the doorframe, stubbornly twisting the furled ends together until they resembled torsos, with attached necks, arms, and legs.

Then he produced a match from the box on the table and set the tiny wooden figures’ necks alight. The flame-heads consumed the artificial bodies leaving a pile of ashes, scattered so that they read “I am a living thing.” But what did it matter? Burn thousands of effigies as he had and some were bound to end up that way.

When night fell he fell asleep, and following his falling asleep God found himself falling off a building. An unstoppable urge had compelled him to the edge, to run forward, surrender to the inevitable void, and feel the paradox of the pavement rush forward to meet him. The retinal cells of the people below embraced the light that reflected from his blood, and their brains christened the wavelength “red.”

The flies that came to his corpse saw a dozen bright red oceans through their glassy compound eyes.

When he awoke, it was though he had lapsed forward in time; he possessed no memory of the period between his dream and the instant he opened his eyes in bed. He looked at the clock- 7 pm.  He shattered the ashtray again, and marked the 7,482nd line on a wall with all of the paint scratched off.

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