Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The Shape We're In

I found this little fossil pipi in a crumbling cliff face near Raglan. I am told it is from the Jurassic period. To think about that, imagine a time line with a space of 1mm for every year; OK? Now, the width of your computer screen would be about 1/2 a metre - that is, it would represent the time from Christopher Columbus until the present. Now imagine the line shooting off the side of your monitor, and continuing on for another 140 kilometres and you'd get an idea of the span of time since this little guy was filtering yummy tidbits out of the sludge on some Jurassic seabed. It was once a living thing, like the hand that holds it. Now it's not a live thing anymore but a stone; yet something of it remains: the pattern of it, the shape of it. Or at least a faint semblance of the shape of it has persisted across that vast, almost unimaginable chasm of time. The shape has outlived the transformation of every atom that once made it up.

The hand too is just a pattern or a shape. It's made of atoms, none of which are alive. The atoms are made of .... well, nothing really, as it turns out. They seem, as far as we can tell, to be shapes or patterns of energy in a similar way that a whirlpool is a pattern or shape of water. Or, another metaphor I quite like is music. Music is a shape or pattern of sound, that exists completely independently of the instrument that plays it. The pattern or shape is what matters, not the stuff that gives the shape some sort of form. We people are shapes the universe has formed in the kind of energy we call matter.

The big question for me is: what exactly is this shape? What is this thing I call myself? Descartes, responding to various people who thought that the self didn't exist said "Cogito Ergo Sum: I think therefore I am" What he meant was that because there were thoughts that he was aware of, something must exist to be doing the thinking. Well, OK, that's obvious, but it doesn't get us very far, because it doesn't explain what exactly is this thing that is cogitoing.

Where do you look for it? How do you study your own consciousness? It's impossible really, because the thing being studied is the thing that is doing the studying. Trying to examine your consciousness is like trying to bite your teeth. It's like trying to photograph your camera: it can be done but only by using a mirror or another camera. We see ourselves, in other words, only as we are reflected in the world and people around us or as another perceives us. What we are seeing is not our consciousness but only an image or a shadow or a copy of it.

Despite the difficulty of perceiving ourselves, most of us do have a very strong sense of self. We know our shape, more or less. We know the sorts of things we like and feel. We know how we act. We have a sense of continuity, that the Me who played in the sandpit at 5 is the same Me who plays on the computer at 55. Now here's the tricky bit. This Me, this self we are aware of, is not exactly the same thing as the consciousness who is aware.

Varela, and before him the Buddhists, say that this self we are aware of; this Me who seems to have such strength and such a continuous existence, is in fact an illusion. It is sort of a mirage; a little piece of sleight of hand that is being played out in the universe. It's a very persistent and strong illusion, and it seems, for most of us, to have taken us over to the extent that most of what we do is an attempt to reinforce the idea that the illusion is in fact real. I think Varela is right but to say that the self we perceive is an illusion is not the end of the story, because there's something bigger, deeper, more real than ourselves lying under the illusion: something that is as much richer and more complex and more exciting than our illusory selves as a real pipi is from a stone facsimile. I think there is a deeper reality that we can only arrive at when the illusion we call the self is seen for what it is. Which is more easily said than done. Perhaps this process of seeing through the illusion to the real life beneath is what Jesus meant when he told us that 'whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it' (Mtt 10:39)

So what's the nature of this deeper reality? Aha! Good question, that.


Anonymous said...

The way you write is quite wonderful- you write with images.. as you speak.
The questions you pose take my breath away.
I think the deeper reality we seek is a combination of the relationship between our 'self' and both our own consciousness and the consciousness that is gods.
Do you think gods consciousness is separate from our own?How could we otherwise have a relationship with Him? gk

Anonymous said...

....and maybe the most fundamental of these patterns is movement to life.
... and the shape- the 'self' true creativity.
so, maybe i dont completely agree with Varela because i dont think creativity is an illusion.
It is almost less of an illusion than everything else.
I think creativity is where god is.gk

Anonymous said...

A photograph of a hand brings to mind a myriad of concepts, parables and metaphors. Three of these are the ideas of universality, dependence and uniqueness.

Hands are universal. There are billions of hands in the world, they come in pairs which are mirror images of each other and they are very handy (whoops). Hands can touch, hold, caress, love, make, mold and create. They are wonderful, marvelous and powerful tools linked to the human brain. The fate of the world is literally held in the collective hands of its inhabitants.

Hands are dependent. Seeing the image of the hand reminds me of its dependence, not just on our free will when linked to our brain but on a different kind of dependence. The question arises as to where exactly is the hand. The photograph of the hand is not the real hand. It is an image reliant on the mathematics of binary numbers, computer screen pixels and thousands of other relationships. The real hand itself is similarly dependent. Beneath the skin are muscle,bones,blood and gristle and molecules and atoms and subatomic particles. The hand is dependent on all the interrelationships at this microscopic and subatomic level.
At the macro level the hand is in relationship with other objects, it is dependent on and influenced by other hands and other objects. As this hand holds and touches and creates it influences the rest of the world much like the butterfly does in the model of what is termed Chaos theory. Similarly this hand is influenced by all the millions of interactions and relationships in the world. So where does the hand begin and where does it end? Does it exist in its own right as a fixed and unchanging reality? The Buddhists would say that the hand is dependent rising, that is, it has no real ultimate reality of its own, but is continually dependent on its interrelationship with everything else. The Dalai Lama wrote “......these two extremes – the exaggerated notion that phenomena exist under their own power, and the denial of cause and effect – are like chasms into which our minds fall, creating damaging perspectives that either exaggerate the status of objects beyond their actual nature or deny the very existence of cause and effect. Falling into the chasm of exaggeration, we are drawn into satisfying a conception of ourselves that exceeds how we actually are – an impossible feat. Or, falling into the chasm of denial, we lose sight of the value of morality and are drawn into ugly actions that undermine our own future”.

Hands are unique – In the photograph is a hand, on the palm of that hand are fingerprints. There are no identical fingerprints anywhere in the universe.

Kia Kaha