Monday, June 25, 2012

Ghosts - 2

(Continued from Ghosts - 1...)
So here’s how it really is. The world you perceive is all-of-a-piece with your sense of you as the experiencer of it. It is you and you are it. The two are indissolubly one, outside of which there is nothing, for nothing can be meaningfully said to exist until you experience it. Subjects and objects are conventions which arise out of this experience; useful, undoubtedly, but conventions nonetheless. What we call “the real world” are the projections of our imagination onto the inchoate data flooding us every moment of every day – ghosts, in fact. They are our attempt to make sense of the world – a wonderfully literal expression for what we actually do. Ghosts are not the exclusive property of the uneducated. Ghosts are, precisely, the concepts with which we all handle all primary experience all the time, taking these concepts as reality, and fighting each other, sometimes to the death, over them when our interpretations don’t coincide – which of course they mostly don’t.

When something entirely fills your field of vision, indeed constitutes the very substance of your consciousness, it is extremely difficult to detect. Indeed, the very act of “encountering” our world is what gives rise to the distinction between us as subjects and the world as object in the first place.  The inferential supposition that the world as we see it is separate from ourselves, and goes on with or without us, is a convention powerfully reinforced by a Western upbringing, and all but impossible to dispel. The tautological fact that this world we comprehendwhich is the only one we know, or can know – is the sum total of our personal experience, and nothing else, is as invisible to us as water presumably is to a fish.

That we (and by we I mean our community) invent the meaning we find in the world around us – “This is a clock; that is my husband/wife…” – is lost in the familiarity of our collective creation. The West does not believe in ghosts because we have a label for everything we’ve invented; “A place for everything, and everything in its place”. Once a label has been assigned it’s almost impossible thereafter to dissociate the image from that label, wherever it occurs. But we occasionally get an inkling of the essentially ghostly nature of all our creations when our imaginations rush in to fill a conceptual void. Pattern – order - is the foundation of meaning. Gazing up at the random shapes of clouds on a summer’s day, or patterns of stars in the night sky, or the craters on the Moon, our compulsion to impose meaning on the world around us stamps on them the patterns of everyday objects we carry in our heads. Since we know these patterns are not “really up there” we have less difficulty in calling them figments of our imagination than we do “clocks” and “spouses” – which are nevertheless concepts every bit as imaginary as faces in clouds; the experiences to which we have applied the labels “spouse” and “clock” just recur more consistently, and are confirmed as real by the recurrence of other associative experiences the lack of which alerts us that shapes in clouds are not faces.  Everything we know and everything we are is comprised, not of earth, air, fire and water, or the contents of the Periodic Table of Elements, but of experience.

But even at the level of abstraction offered by a cloud it’s hard to grasp that the image we imagine (note the similarity of the two words) is not up there, but “in here”. The face we see in the cloud is, we insist, there to be seen by anyone who cares to look. “Ok, it isn’t a real face, but it’s still the image of a face! How else could I see it?” Among the uneducated it may even be that, lacking the straightjacket of schooling, the face in the cloud may be thought literally real – the manifestation of a celestial being, perhaps.  But we who pride ourselves on our objectivity should finally be able to figure that there is no face or image of a face of any description in that damn cloud. It is we who do the imagining, stimulated to do so by the application of memory to raw data, into the vacuum of whose intrinsic meaninglessness ghosts must rush, to fill it.  That others may also see the image of a face tells us only about the concepts we share. It says nothing whatever about any universal reality “out there”.  What we see is the reflection of our own previous experience, our recognition, lacking which we would see no pattern at all.

“So how come cameras can now recognize faces? Doesn’t that prove that there’s something out there to see?”  Well now, aren’t we a clever clogs? This riposte may seem significant, but in point of fact I think you will see that it’s diversionary. We have assigned meaning to a vast range of shapes, colors, sounds, and so on – almost to everything that can be identified from anything else. The recurrence of a particular arrangement (of shapes, say) is announced in you by a flash of recognition, as you involuntarily associate it with your previous experience of that arrangement, and – unless you have Alzheimer’s - the name you have come to associate with that experience identifies it as a remembered “thing”. It is now labeled and “known”. Instantly you and it are separated. But you are only aware of yourself as separate from what you see because of your obsession with labeling what’s in your head as something “out there”.  Were you not to have come across that pattern before it would have no effect on you whatever. You would not see it. The pattern is what identifies you as you. The pattern is part of you. It is you! Without all those patterns built up in your head who would you be?

For the camera, the salient elements that we call “face” were fed into its visual recognition program, not with any embedded meaning, but as a series of algorithms whose parameters will mindlessly register a match whenever one enters its field of view, just as a data mining program picks key words from the internet out of the billions that it sightlessly scans, or, more prosaically, the wheels of a train register a click whenever they cross a joint in the rails. Nothing else – that it was not programmed to recognize – is visible to it at all. But when you look through the viewfinder, all the faces are ringed – just in case you’d forgotten how to recognize them! 

Seeing patterns in the stars gave rise to the Zodiac. Our rational mind again should tell us (something that perhaps the mind of the ancients, for whom ghosts were as real as other objects, did not) that there is no pattern up there among the stars. Sagittarius, the heavenly Archer, must have been – was – a product of an ancient imagination familiar with archers and archery.  They projected onto the meaningless, random scatter of the stars patterns with which they were familiar, so that they could recognize them.  Similarly, but being mostly unfamiliar with Greek mythology, the first American astronauts imposed their own everyday images on the night sky, the better to make it recognizable.  Thus, for example, one constellation became known to astronauts of the Sixties as the Vacuum Cleaner. An ancient could not have been brought to see this image at all, because it had no correspondence in his mind. For him the vacuum cleaner image did not exist. Try as he might an astronaut would be totally incapable of conjuring in the mind of an ancient a vacuum cleaner image in the night sky, because it had not entered the latter’s experience. To exist at all phenomena must become incorporated in our experience. Facts are recurrent experiences. 

(For the conclusion of this post, click here.)

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