Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all: -
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
Language is constructed through pattern recognition and generalisation, and the connections between ideas forge meaning. The Science is that web of communal meaning, and thus all language is of universals, generalities. What we notice in an experience is what fits known patterns, turning it from a collection of sensations into a thing. At best we notice simultaneous patterns and construct from the sensations many overlapping things, but it’s always a process of filtration. The direct sensation is lost, we let that moment of truth with a capital T slip away, hoping better to grasp its ghost – the thing, the connections and relevance, the mnemonic.
This is why I’m distrustful of language, especially language used unconsciously. Symbols, concepts, clusters of meaning – thus, language – are terribly good at protecting us from our real emotional response to a situation and at concealing from us the direct understanding of a thing. Paradoxically ideas are also essential to meaning and meaning is the basis of more than momentary feeling, however intense. So language and ideas have to be an aid in the creation of that connection of feeling and thought which is deep understanding, and not a substitute for that connection. Objective reality, that construction of a world we can agree on and talk about, is at best provisional. It helps reach toward the real truth of experience, but it should not be mistaken for that. Nor is all experience equally available to us; the ability to anaesthetise ourselves through our symbol set is just an instance of this mechanism. We experience fully only that to which we pay active attention, especially engaged and passionate attention.
The temptation is to filter too soon. We think we already know, so we don’t actually see. When we really experience a thing it’s as if we had the patience and care to allow the sensation to experience us. Understanding or interpretation dawns gradually, naturally. That’s one of Sherlock Holmes two secrets: first he really sees, and then he has the courage to accept all the consequences of the conclusions he draws from what he sees. Usually people insist so strongly that their reality should fit the consensus of what to expect in a situation that they reject experience which does not match. To truly experience a set of sensations, and then to truly allow the consequent opening-to-possibilities is, I think, called wonder. It’s not a passive sort of perception, it’s instead a combined passive-active-joyous mode of being – passionate – even if the thing being grokked evokes sadness.
To my mind there are three ways we can interact with others. The first is to interpret their possible proclivities, beliefs, motives; map from that their likely actions, and determine my possible interactions with those possibilities. This approach works from conceiving of the other as an object. It’s not necessarily kind or unkind, and it’s certainly not incompatible with ethical systems which structure one’s treatment of others according to rules. But it is a power relationship. It’s a necessary starting point: the objective connection.
Human empathy and imagination allow us to instead conceive of the other as ourselves in different circumstances, and from that as not-ourselves but still from a subjective viewpoint. What would I-the-other want, need, believe? This is still a conceptual understanding, but one that’s much richer. It’s sustained by good objective understanding, but its basis is inherently compassionate. Such relationships overcome loneliness because when the other’s actions and professed feelings match the imagined-other’s actions and feelings then it proves the existence of the other’s subjective experience.
Finally, compassionate understanding of the other allows one to reach past language and concept to directly experience the other: beyond subjective or objective; before the idea of self or other.  It’s wonder-in-another, and it works as a conversation or a feedback loop. Pure communication without nameable content. Or rather its content is that truth with a capital T which is the uncensored experience of being. It’s love.
Nor does this apply only to other humans. The compassionate understanding which forms the basis for love is harder to apply where understanding is more difficult, but since understanding is conceptualisation of experience, love is possible wherever there is experience. Mammals all need some level of empathy since it feeds the understanding which makes them effective mothers. They’re relatively easy, because the feedback is good. Love beyond this is founded in the inklings of pre-conceptual experience which permeate the basis of our consciousness, or on the blast of pre-conceptual thought which forms the mystic experience.
The best anaesthetic is not to care. Wonder and love are based on passionate and active care. This is the foundation of attention and attention is the foundation of experience. Being-in-the-world is a thing you do, not have. And it’s impossible to care without being motivated by the consequences of that care. To act. To dare to disturb the universe.
All of which sounds very serious, but caring about something is a joyful activity. I suspect this is for the same reason that exerting oneself utterly in a physical activity is joyous. It lifts the spirit to be wholly engaged. But caring also combats fear, and thus brings with it playfulness. Fun. Real communication is a happy activity. Love is expressed best through play, laughter, teasing. Personally, I get too serious – which I suspect is because I’m prone to as much fear as courage. I can see the possibility of lightness but it usually eludes me. I substitute determination, a thing that will slay dragons by means of conscious will rather than the sort of brave gentleness which makes it look easy.
Passion is both unfashionable and dangerous. Wonder and love are incompatible with the consumer culture’s plastic pacifier dipped in sugar and fat. To care is to need to risk, to be willing to spend oneself for the needs of the other. This is Holmes second secret, accepting the consequences of real understanding. If people believed in and understood their experiences were true they would have no choice but to care, and people are afraid to care with any actual passion. Instead they walk past someone who is desperate, and they keep their own needs secret from themselves.
It’s not the white picket fences that really frighten me, it’s that I might one day be too afraid to continue living outside them. Hence the mantra calling out the fey. It describes a hope of wonder and love and passion and risk. Of caring easily and completely. Reminds me of an imaginary time when this was easy. Provides a compass for this course that I’ve more or less stayed on my whole life.
I’m just not a very good mariner. Maybe the compass will help.
- It’s fascinating, by the way, that it’s through empathy that we solve Wittgenstein’s conundrum of communication. I see someone talking about a thing, and by imagining what I would feel prompted to say in the same situation, and why, I’m able to imagine that the other means the same. The extent to which my guess is correct is a function of our degree of commonality and my ability to imagine that commonality and understand the differences. Understanding must precede communication, which will make talking with aliens difficult.
- The short version of why that is is explained here and I’ve made obsessively carefully reasoned argument here for the cultural/memetic angle on that.
- For example this, and all sorts of propaganda from ancient to more recent times.
- What Kierkegaard calls deepest subjectivity, or the infinite passion of inwardness.
- “Change Blindness”, for example. Subjects approached a confederate, who stood behind a counter, to participate in an experiment. After a brief interaction with the experimenter, the subject signed a consent form and handed it to the experimenter. The experimenter then ducked behind the counter to put the form away, and a second experimenter popped up from behind the counter to conclude the interaction. This time, 75% of subjects failed to detect the change in experimenters.
- Utilitarianism objectifies all in this way, including the actor. I should do whatever is best for all-as-objects. Kant’s focus of action is subjective, the good will, but his conceptualisation is of all including the actor in objective terms (even though via their subjective choices). His universal law is the same as saying “take my potential action out of the subjective – could I want it to apply objectively?”
- It’s what Kant was aiming for, clearly, and what he would call an ethical relationship.
- Yes, it sounds mystical. At that level of pure sensation there is only the ocean. Buber has it. The absolute exists within the particular, not apart from it. The rose is within the worm, rather than the other way around.
- That mystical. Or any other, pretty much. Non-duality. Most attempts to interpret it are simply confusing, so there’s not much to say.