Disclaimer: I’m an armchair philosopher and a piss-poor one at that. Some of these ideas probably exist in the writings of wise men and women long dead (or maybe even still living). Who knows, I’m too lazy to check.
Another day and another lively discussion with my roommate, this time with a more philosophical angle. It began with an analysis of the culture, economics and history of the characters in Nickelodeon’s Avatar series and I don’t remember how it ended but I do remember a few key points from the middle:
- Heaven is impossible (from an economic standpoint). I would love to talk about this more but economics is not my cup of tea and really he would do way more justice to the subject. Suffice it to say, there was an analysis of the communist model and why it too would fail even in a perfect society. This lead to…
- A discussion on subjectivity and the concept of a “soul”
- A discussion on the nature of truth and reality
Let me explain.
Despite my best efforts I could not explain how two people could have two irreconcilable views of what heaven would be. I tried explaining that due to the fact that we all see and experience the world differently as well as due to the fact that heaven by definition is beyond the realm of reality the idea that you could apply real-world natural laws to it was ridiculous.
Let’s say in my heaven that I have unlimited access to cupcakes. And these are the best cupcakes. Ever. Period. No your grandma’s cupcakes are not better than these, these cupcakes were baked in goddamn heaven with goddamn heavenly ingredients. They are better, by definition, than any other cupcake that has ever existed or could theoretically ever exist.
Now let’s say that I eat one of these cupcakes. It is amazing. I eat another one. It is also amazing. Microeconomics says that I would get less utility from each subsequent cupcake eaten until the infinitieth cupcake gives me practically no utility, no joy, from its consumption. But you can’t apply that here. It’s heaven. These cupcakes only get better with each bite regardless of how many you eat.
Now let’s say that my version of heaven requires me to put in a little effort to get the next cupcake (in my heaven a little effort would be required to keep things interesting). My roommate argued that if his heaven also had the same cupcakes and in his heaven he had to put in twice as much effort to keep things interesting for himself then he would not get as much utility from the cupcake because he would know that I wasn’t working as hard to get at that tasty pastry (in his heaven he also has access to that knowledge for some reason).
Here’s where we couldn’t agree (and where I probably became a little more frustrated than I should have been). I tried my best explaining that his argument was flawed because we both valued the cupcakes different amounts and in different ways. For me, it did not matter how hard he had to work to get a cupcake in his heaven, just so long as I was getting mine. I used the argument that because of the difference in who we were, a difference which could never be reconciled despite us being best friends, there was absolutely no way that he could ever put our two heavens side by side to compare them. They were completely alien to one another.
I made a few mistakes in trying to explain this. I brought up the concept of the soul and the concept that we are more than the sum of our parts (those parts being a series of electric signals passing through a network of nervous cells supported by other tissues). The thing is, this is easily hand-waived away by centuries of science never being able to find any evidence that there is such a thing as the soul and furthermore by the fact that we probably don’t even have free will.
“But despite that,” I said (I’m paraphrasing here). “Despite knowing all of that, despite my rejection of religious explanations for why we exist and the notion that humans are more special than other creature, despite knowing that I am as susceptible to the protagonist disease as anyone else, I feel as if there is more to me than just a bunch of matter collected together. And no amount of science will ever change that.”
The problem is that it is extremely difficult to explain one’s inner self to another person. It all comes back to perspective.
“What’s true for me is not true for you,” I said, hoping that such a sentiment would explain my inability to explain myself. Didn’t work.
“What’s true for you is true for me is true for everyone,” he said (again, paraphrasing).
This is when we started getting into the nature of reality. The problem is that I entirely agree that there exists an objective truth: one plus one equals two, circles are round, red and blue make purple. There are things which can be proven and there are things which, for everybody, will always be one way.
But there is also a subjective truth. And you can call it perspective but I think it is deeper than that. It has entirely to do with how you perceive the world but it also has entirely to do with how you perceive how other people perceive the world and how you perceive yourself and how other people perceive themselves. It has entirely to do with the information available to you and the information you invent. It has to do with what can be shared with other people and with what cannot be shared with them. Some experiences can only be owned by one person, can only be tasted by one person, can only be described by one person and can only be understood by one person. Some experience are only fit in the tiny slivers where the Venn Diagrams of our collective experiences do not overlap and in my sliver, the truth will be mine and mine alone.
The way I like to think of it is that we all live in our own house.
This house is our mind and we are each trapped in one. We can look through the windows at the world outside and we can yell across the street at our neighbors. We can describe what’s going on inside of our house and we can describe what is going on from our view of the street. We can see the outside of other people’s houses from certain angles and if we look closely we may even be able to take a peek inside. Maybe with sufficient technology we can even take pictures of the inside and send them to one another to get a better. But we can’t ever know what it is like to live in our neighbor’s house, day after day because we can never leave our own. We can listen to their description, we can compare their snapshots of their kitchen to our own right in front of us, we can tell each other which stairs creak and how hot it can get in there and what sort of bumps it makes in the night. We can take all of that shared information and compare it to our own houses to get a sense of what is going on next door. But we can never one hundred percent know what it is to live in that house. My neighbor will never understand the stories I have invented in my house, they will never no the unique smell that pervades it or the music made by its dripping faucets.
And this is because inside of my house itself there is me and inside of your house there is you. These are our inner minds, our inner selves and they experience the world on an entirely different level. Any time you try to explain how you truly feel to someone you are trying to explain to them your perspective of your perspective and they are unfortunately so far removed from that point of view that they couldn’t possibly hope to understand it n the same level as you. And that is at once extraordinarily sad because I want people to feel the same warmth as I feel when I bask in my sunbeams and if they could be just as disgusted I am by my garbage then they would be able to sympathize with me on a level where there would be virtually no walls between us. But the most I can do is tell them a story, maybe send them a few snapshots for reference and hope that they understand.
But the fact that we live in different houses is also a reason to celebrate. It pushes me to get better at storytelling. It pushes me to find common ground with people. It pushes me to look outside and yell across the street so that I can get an idea of what is going on in the other houses. And most importantly, from my point of view, it validates the idea that we ARE all special. We ALL have unique perspectives, unique stories and unique truths. We all have something new to add to the discussion, something which nobody else will have ever seen or heard of before.
This essay is titled ‘Inside Looking In’ because I spend a lot of my time looking around my own house trying to figure out how it is put together, sorting through all of the junk which it has collected, thinking of clever ways to describe the colour of the walls on any given day and exploring to see if there are any secrets which have yet to reveal themselves.
What about you? What do you find when you walk through your house?