Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Who you calling a semi-illusion?

Midgley quotes Dawkins on what selves are:

The individual organism is not exactly an illusion. It is too concrete for that. But it is a secondary, derived phenomenon, cobbled together as a consequence of the actions of fundamentally separate, even warring agents. I shan't develop the idea but just float the idea of a comparison with memes. Perhaps the subjective 'I', the person that I feel myself to be, is the same kind of semi-illusion....The subjective feeling of 'somebody in there' may be a cobbled, emergent, semi-illusion analagous to the individual body emerging in evolution from the uneasy co-operation of genes.

Midgley is very sharp about this idea that higher-level functions like mind, or individual organisms -- both of them cobbled, emergent -- are not as real as their constituent and creating particles are. And obviously I agree with her, since just a few weeks ago I wrote:

But I don't know that "emergent" and "illusory" are necessarily the same thing. If you are willing to assign selfhood a level of mythic reality, whatever it may spring from, then you are going out to lunch with Teresa, not the illusion of Teresa. Even though you may be aware, if you are inclined to think about these things as you pick the olives out of your salad, that at some level of pre-organization there is no Teresa with lipstick on her teeth, only quantum biochemistry fizzing around in some humanly unimaginable way.

Why do I care? Whatever Roberta Rae imagines people are, surely that sense affects how she deals with them, and how she views herself. My own sense of what people are must affect both the story and the way I write the characters. If I believe Roberta is a semi-illusion, but the idea would never occur to her, then I have a problem: Do I write her as a benighted character? Why, and how do I avoid condescension? Should I write her diffidently, as someone who might be right? If so, how do I negotiate my own visceral sense of what people are? However I do it, I want to be fairly clear about what I believe and why, and what Roberta Rae believes and why, and how the views argue with each other.

Why might nonrepresentational artists want to think about these things? In 1998 I went to see the Rothko show at the Whitney, and saw for the first time his black paintings. The room where they hung was an obvious sanctuary, and I sat looking at them for a long time. I felt they showed, as fact, an inhuman universe, and yet they answered some human groping for sacredness in a rich and unusually articulate way. They had authority. What strikes me now is how specific and articulate they were about both that universal absence of human importance and the sense of sacredness, which was so immediately palpable it made people sit down and be quiet. I doubt an artist comes to that sense of reality accidentally or casually.

Anyway. I imagine Dawkins would dismiss "assigning selfhood a level of mythic reality" as a poetic (and self-delusional) view that doesn't reflect known fact: there is known biochemistry, and nobody has to arbitrarily assign reality to it. Meantime there is no objectively provable "I". But Midgley says Dawkins and others who think like him are children in the grip of philosophical fashion. Next time I'll post her short history of scientific squeamishness about "I"'s reality.

1 comment:

Central Content Publisher said...

I find the notion of realness, or illusoriness cumbersome. Considering we still don't have a complete picture of the basic forces operating on the universe, it feels a little premature to assume that there exists something which is not emergent. After all, if we consider something illusory because its existence is owed to composite forces, we have to consider the possibility that all forces are composite forces, even if that consideration leaves us face to face with the discomforts of a reality that’s eternally recursive. How can we speak of a definition of illusion which may include everything which exists?

That said, it sounds like part of your character quandary is isolating the conflict regarding definition of self. Note the following…

One inherent conflict is the sense of disappearing into the great wash of not-you vs. the sense of being one with everything: oddly, these notions are almost identical except that one is a sense of becoming whole while the other is a sense of becoming lost. Both are the result of composite self.

Another conflict is against the other. As soon as the self becomes an illusion, I can expand it to contain what I previously saw as the other, or contract it to create a new other. Note the recent conversation at bitchphd’s regarding child birth and the notion of when one transforms from self to self and other. Or someone naming a relic that was once their leg or arm.

I think the central conflict you’re getting at though, is between the self as a unique force in the universe around which composite elements are sewn (the soul) vs. a purely emergent self which exists as the result of composted elements.

I think people voice this conflict in many common everyday questions. Am I me, or just the result of the things I own? Am I destined to be who I am, or did I choose to be this? Am I really any different than you are?

If I had two characters; Samantha and Jonathan, and stood then at opposite ends of the spectrum, I would imagine they could have a conversation like:

Jonathan: I don’t know, I suppose I’ve always been sort of a dreamer.
Samantha: Ya right. You’re just a guy with a used car who watches too much T.V., and would rather have bad breath than see a dentist.
Jonathan: And you’re just cynical.