Thursday, 31 December 2015

Time and Meaning.

I’ve never really understood the hype surrounding New Year. The periods of time which we label with numbers are artificial constructs, so defined to help us organise our concepts of past, present and future. Whatever happens next year, there will be nothing essentially more individual about 2016 than there was about 2015 or 1658. They’re just groups of digits. The real end of year, if such a notion is worth considering at all, is the winter solstice which we mostly ignore these days. Time never stops; there is only endless flow, completely bereft of instants. It seems to me, therefore, that the concept of New Year’s Eve is pretentious, and rather pointless for so being.

But then I wondered: how do we know that time never stops? If it did, our conscious perception would presumably stop with it, in which case we wouldn’t be aware of the fact. Would we? I don’t know.

I changed tack and considered the rationale surrounding the idea of being projected just one day into the future, if such a thing were possible. You wouldn’t believe how unfathomable it became. I gave up.

6 comments:

Madeline said...

Yesterday I started thinking about the possibility that the unfolding of time is an illusion. I haven't been reading any philosophy or metaphysics, but I did see Watchmen, in which the naked blue character perceives all time as simultaneous. Obviously I can't see the future but I like thinking that from outside of my own perspective I am still yet to be born as well as already dead. It takes some of the pressure out of feeling that I am occupying a brief space in which I am alive.

The standardization and segmentation of time is apparently a modern phenomenon. If you ask the Marxists, we objectify time because of capitalism - to enforce time/work discipline. The pre-moderns would have acknowledged the passing of seasons but to them it was cyclical and eternal, not accumulative. Or so we think.

JJ Beazley said...

I see. You disappear wantonly and without notice, then presume to come back here and start making intelligent comments? Is that it?

Yes indeed, time has long been a sticking point with me and I haven't found a theory which satisfies me yet. 'Slaughterhouse 5' takes the view that time is simultaneous, but that gives me a problem of its own. It appears to depend on the fact that time is made up of an endless series of instants, whereas the constant flow of time - whether linear or otherwise - would seem to preclude the concept of an instant.

I gather this is an ongoing area of study in theoretical physics, and it's being suggested that even Einstein fell short of the mark (Which pleased me because I never understood him anyway!)

Changing tack slightly, by 'pre-modern' I assume you mean before humans started trading and accumulating wealth.

Changing tack again, have you given much thought to the possibility that you never stop being alive, at least at the level of consciousness, but simply go round and round in a cycle of life (which might be illusory), death (which is effectively a misnomer), and rebirth (which I suppose is both)? I like that one.

And did you find civilisation while you were away?

Madeline said...

Yep, that's my modus operandi, apparently.

And yep re: "pre-modern." Pre-capitalism, I suppose. Although I am not sure exactly when capitalism is supposed to have begun. I suppose it began at different times in different places.

I have thought about the possibility of reincarnation - which I suppose is what you're describing, though not necessarily in the sense that most people think of reincarnation - and also the physical underpinnings of it. By which I mean I've thought about the fact that the atoms that make up my body have existed for billions of years, and will continue to exist for billions of years from now. That in itself is kind of comforting, but then I think about the fact that the particular arrangement of atoms that produced my individual consciousness is only a temporary one, and I feel weird about it again. It's like I'm one of those sand paintings made by American Indians in the Southwest that get blown apart soon after they're made as part of a ritual process. (Of course, Westerners have figured out how to fix the sand paintings in place using glue in order to objectify and commodify them, which arguably destroys their original significance.)

I did find civilization - or close to it - and much more. Edinburgh is a nice place.

JJ Beazley said...

I think your statement ‘…the particular arrangement of atoms that produced my individual consciousness is only a temporary one’ comes to the crux of rationalising the question of reincarnation (or ‘rebirth’ as the Buddhists prefer to call it, since their view of the process is subtly different than the general Vedic one.) It suggests that you see consciousness as a product of brain function, the brain being a physical organ composed of atoms.

I’m not saying you’re wrong, but let’s suppose you might be. Some philosophers, and most spiritual traditions, take the view that an individual’s consciousness is a separate entity which melds with the physical body in order to experience sensual phenomena, and continues to exist when the body ceases to function. In that case it wouldn’t be made of atoms, since atoms are the building blocks of material and consciousness is non-material. I suppose it would be composed of the same energy as sub-atomic particles, and this seems to gain some favour with quantum physicists.

I could go into a long discourse here, and it gets quite complex and ultimately unknowable, but for the sake of brevity let’s say this:

If this view is correct, there’s no reason to assume that an individual’s consciousness began its existence with the birth of the physical body. It might have done (the concept of the young soul?) or it might have been hopping from physical form to physical form since the beginning of the universe (the concept of the old soul.) And its individual character would be constantly evolving through being informed by an ever-growing store of experiences. That’s the view I favour, though without proof of course, which is why I don’t preach. (Although I do admit to a suspicion that you’re a very old soul.)

There was a Canadian/American psychiatrist called Dr Ian Stevenson who devoted much of his career to the study of anecdotal evidence for reincarnation. He was a respected academic who went about his work properly – testing anecdotes against a carefully constructed set of criteria, and judging them by reference to verifiable facts. I gather his final conclusion was circumspect, as you would expect of a respected academic, but postulated that the evidence was compelling enough to suggest that reincarnation is likely. There’s also a book by a now-deceased British psychiatrist called Dr Arthur Guirdham, which is very personal and therefore both subjective and entirely non-academic. It’s called 'The Lake and the Castle,' and is a delightful read even if you don’t believe a word of it.

So, to more important matters…

‘… and more’ you say. More? I hope this has nothing to do with young men in kilts. They’re all frauds, you know. I gather the modern (Victorian) concept of Highland dress was largely the invention of Sir Walter Scott, and devised for the purpose of keeping the lower orders contented and therefore less likely to take up arms against the higher orders who were treating them so badly (a disgusting habit for which the English lower orders were much noted.)

I’ve never been to Edinburgh, you know. I drove through the middle of it once on my way to Perth because the map I was using was an old one and didn’t show the new ring road. (One of the consequences of poverty.) I was in a hurry, so I didn’t stop.

Madeline said...

I do see consciousness as a function of brain function, yes. I wish I could believe otherwise. When Phineas Gage was impaled through the brain with a railroad spike (or whatever it was), he was a different person. People who grow tumors in their brains can have their personalities transformed. That, to me, suggests that there is nothing stable or eternal about consciousness outside of its material substrate. But I welcome the possibility that I could be wrong. Apparently in his later years Phineas Gage's personality returned to something like what it was. Does that demonstrate the stability of consciousness outside of brain function? Or does it suggest the plasticity of the physical brain, which is capable of repairing itself over time? I don't know.

One phenomenon that has been fascinating me recently is terminal lucidity. My grandmother had Alzheimer's disease for the last 15 years of her life. Although she always reacted happily to seeing me and my mother, for the last few years she couldn't have told you who we were or where she was. Apparently - and I say apparently because I learned this from my mother, who learned it from the doctor - a day before she died she suddenly became completely lucid, knew exactly where she was and what had happened to her, and appeared to have no neurological deficits. The next day, she got pneumonia and died within a few hours (my mother was with her; I was at college).

Apparently there have been quite a few cases of people with severe dementia or other neurological problems regaining lucidity close to the time of their deaths. I'm not sure how to explain it. My great-grandmother saw visions of her dead friends and family right before she died, but I could attribute that to the neurological process of dying and some sort of hallucination. It's harder to explain how a brain that had not been able to function properly in so long could suddenly regain function prior to death, especially since - in my grandmother's case anyway - she was not actively dying at the time that it happened.

What were you doing in Perth?

It's not about young men in kilts, per se.

JJ Beazley said...

So what of those apparently well attested cases where a person is shown to have no brain function – and maybe even be pronounced clinically dead – and yet upon subsequent recovery accurately reports details of circumstances in their near vicinity while so afflicted? Maybe science has an answer for this, I don’t know. But might I speculate?

It’s obvious that the physical brain plays a major part in ordering the mental state of the person, but maybe this doesn’t preclude the fact of consciousness being independent and non-destructible. Such a scenario would suggest that consciousness and the brain would work in close partnership, so close that an injury to the physical organ might affect the fluency of the non-physical faculty, either temporarily or until death, at which point consciousness – being now freed from its partnership with the brain – would continue on its merry way unharmed.

May I call you Scully?

I was in Perth to take photographs as part of a commission from a publisher. It didn't impress me. Stirling was better, and Inverness better again.

So now you throw a ‘per se’ at me. Clearly the matter of Edinburgh is none of my business (and neither should it be) but I’m inclined to wonder whether you either plan a term of study at Edinburgh University, or there is a project in the offing somewhere in bonny Scotland. That strikes me as exciting, but probably wrong.