Reflections on Aphorisms #34

Got carried away because I got to writing about consciousness. It’s a fascinating subject, and I don’t think I’ve ever fully written about some of my philosophical curiosities about what consciousness is in any serious form, though I might have jotted down a couple quick sketches of ideas a while back.

In any case, Oscar Wilde obliged.

Aphorism 57

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

Oscar Wilde

Interpretation

I believe in the immensity of the unknown.

What exists is orders of magnitude greater than what we perceive to exist. This remains true if we cut down the sheer volume of the cosmos by focusing only on the things which have value to us (i.e. those that impact our lives).

I am often fascinated by the amount of unknown information that exists in the world. I’m not sure if this is something that is regular, or if there’s something in me that pushes me toward this. A large part of it is probably down to the fact that I grew up playing video games all the time, and while the games I played were quite complex they were still only knowable.

It terrifies me to think that I do not know what is in other peoples’ heads. That’s a bit of a strong wording, since it falsely implies that I form some distrust of others or have a phobia.

Rather, I think it’s a form of encounter with the sublime. I realize that those around me have things going on internally that are inscrutable to me, even with conversation. I’m not the most socially aware, though I’m not particularly bad at it (I like to describe myself as average in this way, as I am in many things), and while I can catch on-to things when they’re obvious I don’t have any Sherlock-esque mind-reading or subconscious body language mastery.

However, while this will sometimes consume my thoughts, I find it more interesting to see what we know.

I’ve read a few interesting things about consciousness, and all that I really know about it is that it’s quite an incredible thing.

One of two things in particular that I’ve thought a lot about is the classical philosophical question of similarity in perception: that is to say, the question of whether everyone perceives in universally similar ways.

For instance, if the sky is blue to you and blue to me, is the sensation that we get in our eyes the same essential blue, or does each person’s particular perception of it form based on a different conscious structure? It may seem self-evident that all people perceive similarly (since, after all, we can universally represent these concepts barring some barriers in communication), but on the other hand it may simply be that everyone has fundamentally similar responses to the same stimuli but the actual conscious representation of that stimulus is different.

The other is the accuracy of consciousness. How well do we actually perceive our world?

If I see a snake, is my perception shaped by something biological, or is it a strictly absolute perception? The same caveats as above apply (e.g. we can represent a snake in pictures), but again the nature of consciousness itself may play tricks upon us.

I also get to thinking about physics. What are the odds that there are whole phenomenological structures that underlie the fabric of reality that we simply cannot attune ourselves to? Things like time, for instance, are nearly there (since we perceive time only from a particular point at any moment) , but what is to say that there aren’t other systems and rules that we simply will never know because we aren’t the sort of being to interact with them?

We know that the brain is full of cheap hacks and tricks; this is why I see flickers of my cat, who has been deceased for over a month now, in the corner of my eye when I begin to move around. My brain is reminding me to look for the cat lest I trip over her (she was quite fond of causing such accidents, though she usually came out on the worse end of such exchanges), and still expects to see her despite her absence (and the conscious permanence of it, since I held her cold body in my hands). Years of life with her are not easily overwritten by the conscious over-mind.

Another thing that I have questions about is dreams.

There’s a phenomenon with dreams where the dreamer sees the future, or things that they will only see in the future.

There are three possible responses to this:

  1. These people are credible, and they have seen through time.
  2. These people are frauds, and they are delusional or trying out a con.
  3. These people are experiencing a phenomenon from the intersection of the conscious and unconscious mind.

Of these three, I am predisposed to the third option, at least in the majority of cases.

My skepticism prevents me from fully ruling out the first. Just as it does not prescribe me to believe such accounts, I cannot reject them without examination. The only absolutes I hold faith in are moral absolutes, and since I believe in an omnipotent God there’s no reason why one couldn’t get a vision of the future (assuming God chooses to grant it), though I haven’t necessarily believed in any particular case I’ve seen.

The second is the cynical view. It may be true that some people who believe themselves to see the future are delusional, and that some are charlatans claiming to be true believers. However, the knowledge that this is a possibility should not be transferred into an absolute, and delusions are only delusional if evidence exists to the contrary; it is possible that someone believes themselves to have seen the future but has no evidence to the contrary and therefore is perfectly logical in their beliefs, which doesn’t meet the standards for a delusion. In our enlightenment we would frown on this, but I still think that it’s possible.

Carl Jung recounts an event where he was waiting for a book on alchemy and he saw symbols from the book in his dreams before it arrived. He claims to have had no prior exposure to these symbols, and that on multiple occasions similar events occurred.

Now, I’m not a believer in the paranormal (see my skeptical position above), and I don’t think that Jung is necessarily much of one either (though he certainly is a little New-Agey at times), but I think that this is perhaps an example of an intersection of psychological elements.

If we go on the theory that consciousness is a black box; it takes stimuli that are not necessarily known and produces results that may not actually resemble the original stimuli, things that are perceived in dreams may actually be capable of coming true in real life. The memory and perception of the dream will then switch over to match the phenomena as it is observed in consciousness (altered memory being irreversible and effectively as good as the stimulus being altered), or the stimulus will be altered to match the subconscious perceptions from dreams.

A crappy illustration of my theory of perceived dream precognition. Pardon my handwriting. The first is supposed to illustrate a remembered dream being transformed so that the memory , the second the inverse and less likely case that a dream shapes later perceptions of reality.

This could be disproven by a number of tests, like the transfer of one of these dream stimuli to a concrete form before the actual event that the dreamer claims occurred in their dreams before it happened in reality, but I have never seen a credible example of this in my readings or studies. Esoteric accounts, like those cited by the people who claim that Nostradamus had prophetic visions, are unconvincing to me because they do not withstand Occam’s razor.

How perceived dream precognition could be proved to be something other a product of memory revision, though not necessarily ruled out as an unconscious process being mistaken for something else. Pardon my handwriting. I think in the future I will use vector graphics instead of my pen.

The problem with this is that the accurate representation of something within a dream that would be satisfactory as a proper proof of precognition would be too difficult for most people to execute. If we could actually see into dreams it would become a trivial thing to prove, but this is subject to the other issues with consciousness.

Another issue is that the brain is a prediction engine. Dreams can predict something without having absolute foreknowledge of the future; if you know that someone is sick, you may dream of their death without being certain of it, but having enough evidence for an unconscious anxiety to become concrete and break into your psyche.

There’s also a chance that something that someone thinks they don’t know and have never been exposed to has actually crossed their path before; Jung had possibly witnessed some of the symbols of alchemy in art or literature before he had actually received the book, and had dreamed of unfamiliar symbols that he subconsciously knew to be related to alchemy, which just so happened to also be within the contents of the book.

In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter in practice (this is the answer to most philosophical questions), but it sure is a fascinating point of study.

In any case, I think that Oscar Wilde is making a point about consciousness being a great mystery, I agree with him entirely, and I can certainly ramble and lose track of my point quite a bit.

Resolution

Don’t take observations for granted.

Don’t worry about what lies behind the veil, take in what I see and understand that.

Stay curious, but don’t let it get in the way of my life.

Reflections on Aphorisms #29

Aphorism 49

No man is rich enough to buy back his past.

Oscar Wilde, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms.

Interpretation

I have often found myself consumed by regrets for the past.

This is despite the fact that I try to view every experience as something that has value in context of my whole life. Even miserable, tragic moments contain some sort of lesson or prize.

However, even if making good decisions one is left with the tendency to ask the dreaded question: “What if?”

I think this question does more harm than good.

The one thing that is immutable is the past. No amount of success in the present can change the past, but it can build on it.

I think there’s also an element here of a call to act in accordance with what would not bring one regret. This takes a little bit of thought, and it definitely requires one to sort one’s priorities out. However, it’s also worth noting that sometimes it is better to abandon regret than to dwell on it.

Along the lines of an injunction to moral action, I think Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray serves to illustrate his point. It’s not that one should just run from the regret of the past, but that one should act in accordance with avoiding the regret of the future. Dorian Gray gets the chance to have all of the misery he causes taken out on a homunculus of himself, freeing him from the consequences of his own actions.

However, this Faustian pact protects his body but not his spirit. He eventually becomes so torn up by his regrets–incurring damage which he causes without thinking it will have a consequence for himself–that he destroys the painting that has given him immortality and becomes the withered man that he should be.

I think that one of the best antidotes to this sort of tragedy is to confront one’s feelings frequently. If they’re permitted to build up, they create the sort of toxic regrets that can destroy a person.

Resolution

Confront problems when they happen.

Ask myself if I end each day without regret. If I cannot, what do I change to make it possible?

Never let pride come in the way of self-knowledge.