Consciousness & happiness

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Dreamin' our lives away?

We do not perceive the world directly, as it truly is; we actively construct it. We construct ourselves, too. Our ordinary waking self is as artificial, invented, and illusory as the ethereal double selves we hallucinate in dreams and out-of-body experiences.
John Horgan: Rational Mysticism

The secret [why recollections seem so real] is that real-time experience is just as indirect!
Marvin Minsky: Brains, Vats, Hats website

Horgan and Minsky, each in their own way, say what most people I've talked to about this suspect: what passes for our "real world experience"--what William James called our "rational waking consciousness"--is a fable. We no more experience the real world than an actor in a play lives a real life. There's no color "out there" (a light wave has no intrinsic color--that all happens after it's hit our retina); there's no "sound" in a sound wave--just pressure differences in the air around us.

[To drive this home: Take a good look at the last music CD you burned (non-label side)--there's a boundary between the burned part (closest to the hole) and the unburned part. That inner ring, a little less shiny than the outer, is music--is that weird or what? Up to 74 minutes of Jimmy Buffett embedded on a little silver disk.]

It's not that we really do confuse dreams with waking life, as the Taoist master Chuang Tzu is reputed to have done ("Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?"--which is anthropomorphism taken to the silly stage)--most of us, most of the time, and lucid dreams perhaps being the exception, know damn well when we're awake. Rather that we give too much credence to our waking experience.

Here are a couple of fine resources to challenge the notion that what we think we see is what we see:

(Check 'em out--amazement guaranteed!)

I struggled to express the oddness of the boundary between sleeping and waking in this piece, written a few years ago in Mexico:

I love waking not knowing where I am, who I am. Allowing the pieces of this life to fall gently into place, unhurried. The daily process of reinventing self. I suppose it's accurate, but I really have no way of knowing for sure that who I was last night and who I am this morning are one and the same, or whether the process of waking involves some arcane bootstrapping, where I create myself, my self, a whole new persona. But somehow the one that emerges seems to be recognizable to the other life form that mind accords the label "Louisa" in this place labelled "apartment." Yet again, there is no paradox.

Sound waves come first, photons later. I'm prone, on a moderately yielding surface, which must be "mattress." Dogs bark. Words and phrases come unbidden, the senselessness of my dream fragmenting, waking consciousness bringing order, syntax, vocabulary. I'm uncurious where I am. I want not to know. For long drawn out seconds, or whatever time units my waking-dreaming self employs, I'm in the void, savoring the not knowing.

I'm in Guanajuato. That's it. The womb-consciousness flickers and is gone, I'm here, in a place with a name. I have a history. Barry in Guanajuato. Limbo yielding ruefully to knowledge. I do a sound check. Yep, dogs. Birds. Distant traffic. And bells, always--here in Mexico--church bells.

[Which square is darker--A or B?]


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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at August 08, 2006  

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