Friday, April 10, 2015

What’s it Like to Be a Table?

                                                                       photo: Wualex
Phenomenologists like Husserl and Heidegger like to talk about intention. It’s what separates inanimate objects from animate objects (and in particular those animate objects which possess so called consciousness). A table doesn’t have a set of priorities with respect to the person sitting at it, while the person sitting at a table has lots of thoughts about the table—it’s height, its comfort, its state of cleanliness, it’s provenance—which create a picture in that person (or subject’s) mind. You have seen those biblical paintings where a sea of hands is raised to the heavens. Human existence is a chorus made up of willfulness and desire. Schopenhauer’s famous tome was the The World as Will and Representation. If you go down to the East or Hudson Rivers with their strong currents and murky waters, you’ll find an organic phenomenon which is a living metaphor for human consciousness. It takes the innocent bits of matter that come its way and sweeps them out to sea. Buddhists equate desire with suffering, but have you ever met a Buddhist who has so contained his or her will that they have achieved satori--a state in which they no longer inflict themselves on the innocent table, on which the server in his local vegan café has placed a platter of seitan? Which brings us back to the question of the world. There is the old conundrum about a leaf or branch falling in a forest with no one there to perceive it. How do we posit its existence?  But imagine a world without subjects. There has been talk about the conditions on the planets like Kepler-62 e and f, stars in the so-called Goldilocks area of the multiverse where conditions similar to those which created human life exist. However, there are portions of space/time where the chances of finding anything resembling consciousness or will may be lessened—take for example the event horizon of a black hole. In his famous essay “What’s is it like to be a bat?," Thomas Nagel deals with the questions of whether animals possess traits which we might define as a form of consciousness or self-reflexive awareness. However, there are likely whole galaxies in which rumblings of planets, meteors and supernovae occur like the leaf and the branch which go unobserved in the forest. Momentous events occur without being conceived of by beings who have wishes with respect to them—unless of course you believe in the mandate of the ultimate willful observer, God.

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