essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
What we see depends a lot on where we look from. Also on what assumptions we make, and what tools we have to observe with. As all these factors vary, what we see, live in and believe, and its apparent nature, will vary also. Everyone has a different, unique, point of view. There is therefore no right or wrong. We have instead the more difficult choice to make between better or worse. It is impossible to see objectively, as the blind man said. We can only see relatively. A good starting point to explore this situation could be moving our point of view somewhere else. These are my thoughts on the subject.
1 Shift your viewpoint
Take a step to a smaller scale inside your body. White corpuscles, white blood cells or leukocytes, are highly specialised cells made to do a particular job. They keep the body systems stable by repelling, destroying or neutralising foreign cells that may be harmful, of which there are millions. They originate in the bone marrow and circulate in the blood stream throughout the body, making up one per cent of blood volume. Without them we would die. Although leukocytes all do the same job, they specialise: some kill bacteria, and die in the process, producing pus; others counter inflammation by releasing histamines; others release antibodies and kill viruses. These cells have the ability to ‘learn’, and work by recognising and remembering the cell structure of invaders. Leukocytes only last a few days before dying and being renewed, but new cells of this type all have the same ability to ‘recognise’ the structure of invaders. Take a moment to wonder.
What would it be like to be a leukocyte? How would the human body appear to it? Born in the marrow, making its way blindly and instinctively to the blood stream, and developing a specific structure for combating a certain type of invader. The universe would be long and narrow, a huge area from which an alarming number of invaders might come, each to be identified. Perhaps life for a leukocyte would seem a perpetual war. The value of self sacrifice might be deeply instilled in all. Like all healthy organisms, there would be a sense of balance, which might appear as satisfaction at operating efficiently. Would leukocytes wonder why there were hostile invaders, and where they came from, and why they attacked? That’s anthropomorphism, and so unlikely. But we don’t know leukocytes well enough to say they don’t have instincts, cell programming. They probably do. Perhaps if they had individuality they may wonder at the world they find themselves in, a wonder immeasurably different from that humans can experience, but wonder all the same.
Now an extended view. Supposing humans are a leukocyte in the body that is the universe, how would that influence what we saw and how we reacted to it? We might see existence as a war between good and evil, as Zarathustra said. We might think that disease is another form of life and all forms of life are valid, so the battle between them would be meaningless, an illusion caused by placing too much value on one life form above another. To engage would tie us to the illusion, as Gautama saw. Perhaps, as Jesus realised, the battle keeps us from our true purpose, reaching out to the kingdom within us, and the solution is to welcome the disease, the enemy, and negate it. Or perhaps, like leukocytes, humans are locked into a dualistic framework that misrepresents the complexity and variability of the universe. In physics, relativity and quantum theory still rely on dualism for meaning, spacetime is still space, time; and measuring speed and position of subatomic particles still requires the ability to count to two. Perhaps, as well, as a life form we are unable to avoid working for our own survival, as that is what life is specialised for. This ‘life’ is not by any means all the activity in the universe, nor for all we know, neither is it the most important activity.
Switching POVs does pushups for the soul. We have to realise as soon as possible, as Ira Gershwin put it: “It ain’t necessarily so”. So going from leukocyte to universe and back puts us in touch with more possibilities, and alerts us that there are many more, many we have not the slightest idea of. I saw one time a piece of graffiti that said, “Why do people with bad taste always play their music TOO LOUD”? It got me thinking of some other things and here is my wall to put them on (with apologies to Facebook). “Why are stupid people so certain of themselves?”; “Is drama a form of self expression or of self obsession?”; “Can you ever be proud of being empathetic?”. Maybe I’m not clear. I’m recommending every Muslim to practice Judaism, every Jew to be a Christian, every Hindu to turn to Mecca and pray. Every now and then. To be able to say, my neighbour is devout, and I love them for it even though their faith is not my faith, surely this is good. But we need the mantra, we need the kundalini to flow, we need to ebb between yin and yang, and we need to keep doing so. To begin with, those with firm convictions need to disassemble them. And those who don’t care, the drifters, need to paint themselves into a corner and answer why they are uncommitted, an unpleasant but necessary task. We all need to dance with Shiva, to cultivate our other sex, to see possibilities as more valuable than probabilities.
2 Examine your assumptions
I began with saying we all have a viewpoint (not necessarily a view); and that we all start with assumptions, and not necessarily the same ones either; and that we all have the same tools, our senses. That’s all we have. And we’re thrown into the deep end of the pool of life to find out what the rules are and how to play the game. Shows a lot of confidence on god’s part, but then he made us, so I guess he knows what he’s doing (the thought of an incompetent god is not a comforting one, but surely has occurred to everyone at one time or another, when faced with the cruel injustices life can serve to some). In his dystopic eschatology the SF genius Philip K Dick once had space travellers who came across a huge thing in outer space which turned out to be the dead body of god, just floating around. But then, Dick saw more things he didn’t like in his contemporary world than we do in ours, probably because he couldn’t afford a TV set, or spent less time on the internet buying things he didn’t want, like sneakers with lights on them (George Carlin’s example).
Let’s start with assumptions. We all have them. I assume you’re not going to read this. You assume I’m trying to sell you toothpaste or something. We all believe in rational discourse, though we can’t have it too often because language is only so-so in describing what’s important to us (that’s assuming we know what’s important to us). We assume the values of a civilisation lies inside what is merely a rat race. We assume selfishness is passion and commitment, that logic makes things clearer, that intelligence is variable (in fact we all have the same degree of intelligence, some just use less of it). We assume everyone can be exploited, and this makes us vulnerable to exploitation. We assume altruism is foolish but praiseworthy but can’t accept favours from others. Might is right, love conquers all, lose yourself to find yourself, don’t explain the sound of one hand clapping, your self interest is greater than my self interest. And so on, blah, blah, blah. Assumptions. Before we begin to look, before we begin to see, before we try to make sense, we have assumptions. The task before us is: have no assumptions. It’s impossible, but the effort is still worth while.
We all experience life exclusively through the senses. There is nothing else. Logic, imagination, intuition, they all derive from the senses. There is really no revelation from outside (though some have found considerably more spiritual insight than most of us). Nobody can mystically pass on news about “out there” because there is no out there, no one capable of perceiving it if it existed, and no way of transmitting the information in meaningful human terms. All we have is a desire for revelation. Derived from our senses. There are many senses we don’t use much to build a picture of the universe with. I once counted about 24 of them. Don’t know how the number five was derived, but it shows lack of flexibility about the senses. The senses both make and limit our world. Take the electromagnetic spectrum as an example. It’s frequency is measured in cycles, expressed in powers of 10. Down at 10 to the sixth power are radio waves; then radar waves; then light waves, which are measured in cycles between 10 to the 14th and 15th power; then ultra violet, x rays and gamma rays and finally cosmic rays measured from 10 to the 26th power. Humans can “see” along one thirty third of the electromagnetic spectrum. How one eyed is that? And yet we blithely assume that what we see is all there is to see. We can probably register the entire spectrum, just not with the sense of sight. The eye is too limited. Yet for most people the world is a product of their sight. Perhaps that world is not really there? Might it be an illusion?
We all have a self, an environment and a purpose, made by self definition, which gives us our unique viewpoint. These, like assumptions and sense data, are all pretty arbitrary. Like rings on a tree we build us up: me, male/female, body, child, hands and toes, arms and legs, genitals, food, mother, wants, toys, siblings, play, colours, display, race, neighbours, religion, occupation, wealth, status, health. Soon we have selves busy quarrelling about what we have found out, shouting each other down, taking advantage, killing each other because we think other viewpoints ‘evil’. Take the atom and our viewpoints about it. Is this a basic building block of the universe; the source of an immensely powerful weapon; or an indication that the universe is somehow a network of interconnected relationships where pattern is more important than matter? Depends on the point of view you arbitrarily adopt.You call the shots. Look at a solar system or a galaxy of stars. Is this a condensation of cosmic dust into nuclear reacting matter fighting with gravity, or a pattern of relationships in the form of spirals and epicycles? Nuclear explosion. Pattern. Explosion. Pattern. It’s important to realise just how uncertain it all is: viewpoint, assumptions, sense data. Exploration is almost always more rewarding than definition.
3 Analyse your mistakes
Everybody makes mistakes, though some are better at it than others. It comes from defining things too rigidly. I think the best thing to do with a mistake once you’ve made it is to acknowledge it. To as many as possible. That helps you not to make it again. If you’re going to make mistakes, at least make new ones each time. Must be boring for those who are locked in their mistaken views. White is inferior to black or vice versa. Not much colour in that point of view. The economic problems of the third world are not a concern. Wait till the flow of cheap consumer goods is cut off at the mart because the third world workers who produce them have starved to death. No more Nike! All those iPhones made in China will be even more expensive. State terrorism is OK but not that of minority groups. Don’t bother us with political issues. What to do with these Palestinians: I know, let’s kill them, that’ll solve the problem. Don’t bother to vote, let the stupid people who believe election promises elect the government.
All these attitudes have one thing in common. They are all stale viewpoints. They’ve been held for a long time, and haven’t changed much no matter how much the times have changed. We are limited about our knowledge of the world and of ourselves, let’s admit it. We often hold conflicting views, let’s admit it. But let’s at least look at our viewpoints, and how they derive from limited data, a ratbag mix of assumptions, and self ignorance.
Many women who intend to have a child at some stage enrol in an exercise course, pilates, yoga, aerobics or similar activities. They want their bodies to reach maximum flexibility. But our bodies include our minds, and there’s no need to stop being flexible at the neck upwards. We’re all like the humble leukocyte in having a job to do. Somebody out there we probably disagree with probably has the right answer, so let’s find them. Sometimes it’s right to be wrong. Better to step on your partner’s toes when learning to dance than stand on the side and declare dancing wrong.
I’ve explored as best I can three rather commonplace ideas. That we can shift our point of view through use of our imagination, and that this gives us new perspectives helpful to our problems or situations. That our ideas and beliefs are based on viewpoint, assumptions and sense data, and that all these are to a certain extent arbitrary and limited, leaving us with a relativistic world view, not an absolute one. And that our situation often forces us to make mistakes, and that mistakes can be a form of discovery, unless they are adhered to too rigidly and thus become prejudices or narrow mindedness. Nothing really original here, but possibly a source of discussion.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.