“Which is better – to be born stupid into an intelligent society or intelligent into an insane one?” (Aldous Huxley, Island).
Philosophers are full of shit and always have been. For centuries, they have drooled and tripped all over themselves trying to identify (solely in their minds) the basic building-blocks of reality. These ‘substances’, as they called them, are supposed to be whatever remains once you have ‘stripped away’ (in your mind) all the properties from a thing. A person is still a person, for example, whether black or blonde hair, dark or light skin, 4’6” or 6’10”, twelve or seventy-eight years old, male or female, sick or healthy. Such properties are temporary and incidental to the ‘being’ or ‘substance’ of a person, whatever that happens to be.
In the late 17th century, German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz postulated that the world consists of an indefinite number of such substances. He called these ‘monads’. Each of these monads, he thought, can only affect itself. On this view, each thing in the world is truly distinct from all others and cannot, therefore, interact with anything else. Instead, things only appear to interact with each other. Their actions have been programmed in advance by god to harmonize with the actions of other things.
A result of this view is that cause and effect are not real. Let’s say I throw this philosophy book. The book hits the wall. A dent appears in the wall. The book’s pages tear. Leibniz would deny that I caused the book to fly through the air. He would argue that the book did not in fact cause the dent in the wall any more than the wall caused the pages to rip. Rather, the book was preprogrammed by god to take off through the air at the precise moment I opened my moving hand. A certain portion of the wall, in turn, was preprogrammed to crumble at the precise moment the book came into contact with it, just as god had put it into the nature of the book’s pages to rip, entirely by themselves, immediately after the book had hit the wall.
The point to all this is that there is no direct causal or perceptual relationship between one substance and any of the others. You can’t, as it were, ‘see’ into substances and you cannot ‘see’ out of them. They are ‘windowless’. They exist and do what they do entirely on their own without being caused to act and without acting upon anything else. It may seem that things interact with each other in the world, or at least have the power to do so, but they do not. This, you see, is simply god’s ‘pre-established harmony’.
Now this is mostly bullshit, of course. But it does offer a great model for viewing the self (minus the divinely pre-established harmony junk). The lyrics of “Windowless I” (see “Lyrics” menu) build on this perspective. They are also inspired by the writings of various other authors, such as Aldous Huxley, Herman Hesse, Timothy Leary, and Carl Jung.
“Lies. They all lie.” In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, after the protagonist withdraws from society, he begins to realize that “everything lied, stank of lies,” as he walked through town, scornfully glancing at pretty women, well-dressed people, business men and traders, princes and prostitutes, priests, lovers and mourners.
“Everybody lies” – House M.D.
“Windowless I” begins in the realization that society is comprised of lies – incessant efforts to conceal, embellish, spin, ignore, mislead, and appropriate words to twist their meanings. People have grown so accustomed to it that they neither notice nor care. They expect lies and would feel empty and awkward without them in social contexts. Lying is the business of politicians, advertisers, and corporations, as well as the mainstream media, priests, professors, and scientists. All of it to maintain status, to save face and deflect from hypocrisy, to subtly impose one’s will on the masses, to mark oneself off as a member of some tribe.
The media bias is especially obvious. Yet people only pretend to care. They like it that way. The use of catchwords, slogans, and symbols rather than critical thought is especially prevalent here — all to instill conditioned reflexes in voters, to keep them distracted and prevent the sort of rational thought that would topple their empire of false imagery.
The tools used to perpetuate lies are symbols. Symbols are public. But what happens inside each person is private. Think of the so-called ‘cross’. Only one person can understand the sense of spiritual ecstasy, awe, personal helplessness, guilt, and/or feelings of cosmic significance that ground his or her own choice to identify with the cross as some sort of personal symbol. These experiences are as private as an individual’s particular sensation of pleasure or pain. There is no way of passing such experiences on to another person. The only possibility of communication is indirectly through symbols. So one symbol, in this case, the cross, stands for millions of private experiences.
The problem is that symbols seriously over-simplify reality. They replace thought with mere reaction, which is only surface-deep. Trusting a pair of blue jeans because it has the right sort of label, believing a person with a cop uniform and badge, and embracing someone who wears cross-jewelry is like accepting or rejecting a Christmas present based solely on the wrapping paper.
Symbols are meant to limit experience and constrain thought. Stimulus in — preprogrammed response out. The previous post on “Servitude” compared them to “the crack of the whip that a master uses to rouse a slave into action without question.” Symbols are the bonds whereby the powers-that-be control the masses. Media and advertisers, politicians and priests: They speak your language but have no idea what you want or need. Nor do they care. In reality, there is no such thing as ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ — only two supposedly opposing tribes consisting of individuals who identify with each other solely on the superficial basis of slogans and clichés.
Hairstyles, clothing, catchphrases, gestures, body art, piercings, cranial accessories, shoes and the like: None of this is truly significant as expressions of the self. They are as lifeless as a photo of a beautiful woman when compared to her presence in motion. Such symbolic behaviors serve merely to indicate membership in a tribe. Think of those supposedly ‘badass’ motorcycle packs, which tend to employ deafening sonic symbols to mark their territory. If Harleys made no noise at all but were just as powerful and ‘cool’ looking, would anyone want to ride them? Far fewer, for sure. That is because society values the container over the content.
I am reminded of a scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” Brian, the mistaken messiah, abandons his sandal in flight. Meanwhile his followers stop pursuing him and passionately debate whether “the shoe is the sign.” They then go on to contemplate whether the shoe is a shoe or a sandal, and if it is a sign, what it means and how they should react, and if it is not a sign, what other things that happen to be around them might be signs of the messiah. Following this obsessive display of symbol-worship, the crowd runs off to continue their search for the messiah himself.
This scene nicely depicts the eagerness of people to follow and prioritize empty symbols to the exclusion of what they are supposed to symbolize. It shows the human tendency to see symbols everywhere, even where they are not or cannot be; and if they are present, to misinterpret them, giving them far more favorable significance than they are worth. I mean, the crowd got so caught up in symbolism that they forgot about the guy they thought was their savior!
Living a life predominately dictated by symbols reveals a mind that has been conditioned to respond, follow, and obey rather than to think. It is a mind stuffed with arbitrary categories that filter and censor the vastly more complicated flow of reality.
One might choose to escape this tribalistic freak show by seeking alternative forms of enlightenment, e.g., through drug use (as in the 1960s LSD phenomenon), spiritual quests, meditation, holistic lifestyles, etc. — all of which supposedly lead to feelings of intensity, epiphany, and of touching something universal and eternal. These experiences have been said to involve sensing the boundaries between oneself and the world vanish. They supposedly allow feelings of hope and the sense that the universe has deeper meaning. They provide, it is said, a harmonious connection with others, the whole earth, with life in general — a feeling of being united in mind and body and of relating to everything as a part of a greater whole.
But this is tribalism come full circle. What is the satisfaction of feeling that you are a mere pawn and part of some grand design? Why the need for such connection? The universe is absurd and ultimately unknowable. Can’t one find satisfaction and meaning in accepting that? The search for, trust in, and mass appeal to symbols comes from the need to feel significant. But so does seeking a transcendental connection to the universe. Ultimately, admitting insignificance and lack of connection is the only true significance. Labels don’t stick.
In the end, if there really is some grand design of which I am part, then isn’t my sense of separation part of that? Who is society to judge my separation or to eschew values centered on the individual and emphasize disconnection? What of the atheist, the skeptic, the misanthrope, the cynic, the egoist, the nihilist, and the solipsist? Why the stigmas against such individuals when such lives are truer to the flow of reality than that of the superficial, tribalistic symbol-worshiper? If everything really happens according to a plan, then wouldn’t their abandonment of religion and/or society be part of that plan?
In the end, it doesn’t matter. True belonging and participation are as impossible as experiencing another person’s feelings or understanding their thoughts. Any claim to be part of god’s plan or some cosmic scheme is simply human arrogance and on a par with finding patterns that resemble human beings and their artifacts in the chaos of billions of stars in the night sky.
Who am I? I might apply endless labels: ‘American’, ‘man’, ‘middle class’, ‘white’, ‘musician’, ‘teacher’, ‘writer’, ‘editor’, ‘citizen’, ’40 year-old’, ‘progressive rock fan’, ‘libertarian’, ‘drummer’, ‘philosopher’, ‘atheist’, ‘skeptic’ — all ultimately as meaningless as a mask, badge, or uniform. Several of these, in fact, can be used by social forces to categorize and control a person. Impermanent marks of tribalistic identity are helpful in a superficial society. But are they truthful? In the end, the only true identity is ‘I am I’.
© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.