Inside Looking In

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.

Is this a hexagon or a cube? And if it's a cube then which way is it oriented?

Is this a picture hexagon or a cube? And if it’s a cube then which way is it facing?

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.

Source: "Choco-Nut Bake with Meringue Top cropped" by Choco-Nut_Bake_with_Meringue_Top.jpg: rusvaplaukederivative work: Kaldari (talk) - Choco-Nut_Bake_with_Meringue_Top.jpg. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Choco-Nut_Bake_with_Meringue_Top_cropped.jpg#/media/File:Choco-Nut_Bake_with_Meringue_Top_cropped.jpg

I use food in my analogies a lot

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.

Auchenmade_station_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?

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The Truth of Colour

Many a time I wish the world were black and white.

How simple things would be, I think to myself. How easy. There would never be a problem determining right from wrong, fact from falsehood or embellishments and intentions from accidents. Never would there be a chance for doublespeak, for mis-communication, for a wayward glance to be taken out of context or an error to be blown out of proportion.

But then I think to myself, such a world would be boring. There would be no complexity to it. A mind could not flourish there, not a human one at least. We need more than simple right and wrong to enjoy the richness of reality.

So I imagine a world with colour. A world where there is black, and white and red and blue and green. A world with yellow and orange and purple and brown and pink. A world where the colours of the rainbow and beyond exist in stark, eye-popping contrast to each other. There is still no opportunity for error; either something is red, or it is not red and it is something else. This is a world that would still be easy to navigate through. There would still be the simplicity of truth and falsehood but there would be an added complexity of layers, as if each colour had its own significance in putting truth together.

This would be an easier world to live in then our own right?

But then I think of how truly complex our world is. I think of all the different hues and shades and intensities and ways of making colours appear and blend and vanish from sight. I think of the different techniques that artists have used to manipulate colours and bring them to life: pastel, oil, watercolour, glass, poetic description. As I think about the sheer complexity of our world right now I realize, that to remove even a single hue from existence for the sake of simplicity would ruin the entire quilt that is reality. How even would one determine what absolute red or absolute green is? Each colour adds meaning to truth. Each shade adds depth to meaning. Each hue alters the interpretation of the truth slightly to the point where what is true and what is not vanish in a blurry line. All that remains absolute is black and white at the far edges of existence with the whole of actuality in between.

This complexity makes our existence a joyful place. We flourish here because our minds struggle to comprehend the sheer impossibility of something being both true and false, both red and orange. We learn of the shades of grey and we learn how to find the hidden meanings between them. We share our love for a certain interpretation of existence and in doing so we learn of even more possible colours. The fact that our universe is composed of an endless palette makes our lives richer and we enrich the palette by simply existing and blending colours to create new meanings.

To live in a world where truth is determined by a simple black-white test is to live in a world that ignores the most fundamental of all facts: that reality is far more complex than simple black and white and that we are better off for it.

I Lied…

So I lied about what the next post will be. Sue me. This one popped into my head and I had to get it down.

Hello, my name is Arthur, and I am an addict. I have been using for about three years now and I realized that if I continued I would only be hurting those I cared about. I’m sorry if I sometimes get off topic or if I – uh, it’s just that this is a little difficult for me. I’ve never been able to do this without the pills.

I suppose I should begin with how I got addicted then.

In my family, there were always, issues. Specifically with trust and the things that come and go with it. I mean, sure, every family has a problem now and then but you could say mine was truly dysfunctional. I remember my father coming home one night from wherever it was he went during the day and telling me to keep it a secret from my mother who was working a night shift that he had lost five thousand dollars. He was impressively drunk at this point; I remember clearly the smell of cheap booze on his breath. The next day, when I accidentally broke a vase and lied about it my mother chastised me to the point of tears. I angrily cried out that dad had lost all that money and, well, things pretty much went downhill from there. Dad beat me later that week when mom was working another night shift and he started coming home drunker and later than ever. And mom, she started looking worse and worse. Their marriage imploded within months.

I never really thought about it until recently, but this is probably how I became so addicted. I came from a household of substance abuse and dishonesty. So, when I was perusing the net one night and happened upon some pills that promised to make those who took them speak only and ever the truth, well, the little kid inside me with the trust issues thought it was too good to be true, even if the adult inside me was sure it was a bunch of crap.

But it wasn’t.  Three easy payments of almost thirty bucks later and I had my own ten year supply of truth pills. I wasn’t sure how to test them at first, I mean, they easily could have been poison. So I, well, I went a little crazy. I fed them to the neighborhood cat and when it didn’t die I figured they were safe for humans. I tried them on my neighbor next, popped two into his beer during a football game. He didn’t start blurting out all of his dirty little secrets like I expected though. Instead, he would just answer every question with complete honesty. I asked him his name, and he gave me the answer. He was a little confused, we knew each other well enough to know each other’s first and last names, we had been living door to door for the past year. Next I asked him his social security number and without any coaxing at all he answered me. I asked him all sorts of things, where he was born, how much he made in a year, if he had ever broken the law. He answered me every time like nothing was wrong. He asked me why I was asking all of these questions, but he had no objection to answering them. Turns out he once broke into somebody’s house and stole their television so he could afford concert tickets.

So, I realized that these little pills could make somebody tell the truth without realizing that they probably should not have been telling the truth.

And I started taking them every day.

Since the day I blurted out my father’s secret I had become an habitual liar and I hated myself for it. Countless relationships had crumbled because I didn’t know how to tell a hurtful yet necessary truth. But with these pills I was free from my bad habit. I could self-medicate away my deceit. It was an amazing feeling at first, extremely liberating. But over time I noticed that people avoided my opinions. And then I noticed myself growing further away from people, friends, coworkers, family. The problem was that my honesty was getting in the way of their happiness and they didn’t like that. So I thought “screw them, I am who I am”. But the problem was that this wasn’t me, this was the pills talking. The only person I wasn’t being honest with was myself.

It hit me that I had gone too far when at thanksgiving last year my four-year-old niece showed me a picture she had drawn in crayon of a pink dinosaur. The picture was as bad as you would expect a little kid’s drawing to be. All of the other adults loved it but I looked that little girl straight in the eye and told her that she had drawn a bad picture. She wasn’t sad or anything, didn’t cry. She’s a tough kid. But it was at that moment that I realized that maybe I had gone too far with the pills. The lies we tell to children aren’t told to hurt them, if anything, many of these lies are told to make kids better people:

“You can be president one day if you work hard enough, rubbing alcohol and needles don’t hurt at all, there’s no such thing as monsters.”

Santa Claus is a perfect example: good kids get rewarded with toys, bad kids get punished with coal.

Yeah, so, back to the pills…

I tried quitting on my own but being honest after years of being false is a stronger habit former than nicotine. I mentioned the liberating feeling earlier. I relapsed about six times over the course of the year. Each time I fell back harder on the pills than before. At first it was jury duty, then it was when I couldn’t bring myself to admit, something, to my doctor. Then it was this and then it was that n and the reasons became more and more asinine until I finally broke down and asked my sister for help. I told her everything, the pills helped with this too, and she brought me here. To be honest, I didn’t think such a place existed, but then again, six billion people on this planet, I couldn’t be the only one with such a vice.

I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here. Namely,the truth hurts sometimes, and while it is often necessary, sometimes that hurt can be avoided. Also, lies aren’t good all the time, but it’s okay to lie once in a while if it means protecting what’s dear to us.

So, uh, yeah. My name is Arthur and I have been telling lies for about a week now. In fact, I just told one.