Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I Am

I'm teaching The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time again this week, and my students adore it. They love Christopher's blunt innocence and sharp intelligence, and when asked whether they ever find themselves disagreeing with Christopher's opinions, they shake their heads solemnly.

That's when I get them to turn to p. 116. "People think computers are different from people because they don't have minds," Christopher says, "but the mind is just a complicated machine." People like to believe that they have an essential self, he claims, but that belief is itself a trick of the brain. There is no homunculus, no "little man" living inside our heads receiving inputs from the outside world and driving the brain as if it were a stick-shift.

Not surprisingly, that notion meets with stiff resistance. I resist it, though I don't pretend to be able to build an airtight argument in defense of old-fashioned Cartesian mind-body dualism. Perhaps more interesting than the old, vexed question of the relationship between mind and body is the question Andrea posed today in a book review: the book "make[s] the tantalizing point that sentience takes up so much of our mental real estate and consumes so much energy that it has to be good for something, even if we haven't figured out what yet." Consciousness - what is it good for? We not only exist, but we know that we exist. What possible purpose does that serve?

According to St. Anselm, existence is a good. Existence is not merely a prerequisite for other good things, but is good in itself. To exist is better than not to exist. St. Anselm uses this concept as the basis for what I have always found to be one of the sketchier arguments for the existence of God. But the idea has broader implications. Is my life a burden I agree to assume only so long as I am experiencing happiness and pleasure at least 51% of the time? Or does it work the other way around? Is mere existence so valuable a good that even under conditions of overwhelming sadness and pain I will still pursue my continued existence at all costs?

It's easy for me to grasp the value of my existence in September. September is my favourite month of the year. The coolness of the air stirs my blood; the crisp edges of the leaves hint at all the coming fall pleasures like hot applesauce and pumpkin spice lattes. Fall feels right to me in a way that no other season does - I feel healthy and energetic; to exist is evidently so very much better than not to exist. But I also feel oddly surprised at the idea that existence, under any conditions short of intolerable suffering, might be considered a good in itself. I have so much else to be thankful for that I have forgotten, til now, to be amazed at how improbable and even inconceivable it is that I should not only exist, but also know that I exist, and rejoice.

20 comments:

Kara said...

Love Curious Incident, wonderful book.

Sue said...

Wow.

Susanne said...

I feel that existence as such is something to be grateful for. Most people seem to disagree though.

Rachel said...

I think I'd better read that book!

Also, Bea, what is a pumpkin spiced latte and how do you make them? Sounds an interesting concept and very autumnal.

Bea said...

Rachel - Actually, Starbucks makes them. I'm not that domestic! They are yummy, though.

Rachel said...

Hehe:)

Never seen them in Starbucks in London!

x

Recovering Sociopath said...

I'm with you on September; it's my favorite month, too.

I just read Wendell Berry's Life is a Miracle, so the deficiencies of the treatment of mind as machine are a subject I've been musing upon lately. If you haven't read his essays, I recommend him.

Is my life a burden I agree to assume only so long as I am experiencing happiness and pleasure at least 51% of the time? Or does it work the other way around? Is mere existence so valuable a good that even under conditions of overwhelming sadness and pain I will still pursue my continued existence at all costs?

One way I have come to escape the framing of this issue merely in terms of an individual's happiness is the remembrance that human beings live in communities. We exist in a web of relationships; my existence matters to more people than just me. Even if I'm miserable enough to want to check out, there are people whose well-being and happiness depend on me sticking around. Also, regardless of my happiness quotient, my existence is an unqualified good for those whose existence is contingent on mine, i.e. my children.

It's an incomplete response, of course, and subject to exceptions (what if I were a frightful and abusive monster of a mom?). But it's helped a lot of my thinking in this area.

Aliki2006 said...

Yes--one of my all-time favorite books. September and October are my favorite months, too.

Kyla said...

I evacuate for a couple weeks and suddenly you are blogging again! I should have evacuated much sooner. ;)

allysha said...

Fall is my absolute favorite time of the year. I find it rejuvenating.

Cole said...

This is now my favourite post. It's delightful how you give voice to my emotions. They feel more authentic when someone like you gives them voice. I'm so glad you and your blog exist.

sandbetweenmytoes said...

Autumn is my favorite month and I love gingerbread lattes. And they definitely help me to exist. It's funny how the simple pleasures in life can be so wonderful.

Mad said...

Mmmmm. A close member of the family died in palliative care a few years back. She was a devout Catholic and believed until the end that, if God gave her this life, it was her responsibility to fight to preserve it until the painful and very bitter end. One son, an atheist, supported her to the point of arguing for life support and feeding tubes even though her cancerous state was clearly palliative. Another son, a doctor and devout Baptist, felt it best to leave well enough alone. Palliative is palliative and the Canadian health care system can ill-afford keeping people alive who are well on their way to death. The third son was caught in the middle. I am married to the third son.

I do rejoice daily that I exist and that I have awareness that I exist. I rejoice about this knowledge in the midst of days that are dark and light. Where my awareness, my desires and my faith or lack of it override my mortality, that's where it becomes foggy for me.

Andrea said...

I wonder, though, if an animal that was equally intelligent but had no "I," no story about itself, wouldn't function better a lot of the time?

Since this whole comment is littered with "I"s I'm obviously incapable of separating myself as an intelligent animal from whatever in my head that thinks it's in charge, and the "I" in my head is awfully attached to all of those subjective intangibles like happiness, meaningfulness, pleasure, comfort, and all the rest of it. But arguably they make it harder to do the thing that's better for me or for the world (driving, reading on the couch, and eating chocolate all make the "I" much happier than running, inventing crafty or educational projects to do with Frances, and eating fresh fruit do).

It's a strange question--what is "I" good for--in part I think because it's the "I" that's asking it, and it likes to believe in its own innate value.

I don't think I'm making any sense.

(Eleven "I"s in this comment.)

Gwen said...

My grandmother is turning 96 this year. She has broken her hip multiple times and is finally mostly immobile. She can't taste much. She's quite deaf. But she is still so very much, so joyfully, alive. She makes me think about this question all the time.

Bea said...

Andrea - This discussion keeps making me think of the idea of the "fortunate fall" - because self-awareness and subjectivity seem in many ways to be so directly linked to every bad and evil thing in the world. (My post was full of "I"s too, and as Recovering Sociopath points out, the way I have framed the discussion seems hopelessly individualistic.) Sentience seems a bit like free will - fundamentally a bad idea, yet also somehow such an amazing gift.

Mad - I actually revised this post a couple of times to try to steer it as far away as possible from all those assisted-suicide/end-of-life issues - just because it seems like that's all the concept is used for, as if the acknowledgment that existence is a good is useful solely for the purpose of keeping people imprisoned in their bodies as long as possible. But I can imagine a world where the value of existence could become a standpoint from which to reject the acquisitiveness of our culture - where DOING and HAVING are not allowed to ride roughshod over the concept of BEING. (I'm not making sense either, here, but I'm trying.)

Merle said...

"I exist and I know I exist. What is it good for?" I don't really know. What would it be like to not know you exist? Are there any animals that do know they exist? Is to know that one exists contingent upon one's level of intellectual functioning? Someone once said that being gifted with a disability is one of the cruelest states. Because the person is so clearly cognizant of examples of when things are easy and examples of when their disabilty makes things hard. In comparison, it is hypothesized that some people with severe intellectual disabilties have no awareness that they are disabled or that they have very little understanding of how disabled they are. So consciousness seems a bit like awareness. I guess also the degree to which your awareness matches reality must play an important role along with how good or bad the reality actually is.

Anonymous said...

Spiced Pumpkin Lattes at Starbucks. Now that is living!

(Your not-so-deep) Anon

nomotherearth said...

If we exist, and we KNOW we exist, must we then assume that we exist for a purpose? A specific purpose? This is what I'm struggling with now. I feel as if I'm meant to do SOMETHING, but I can't, for the life of me figure out what. The crispness of the autumnal air only brings a greater urgency to this struggle.

carol said...

The mind-body dualism question does not centre so much around consciousness but existence. How do you know you exist - are you really just a robot, someone's dream, a figment of someone's imagination. How appropriate to discuss such a thing on a blog centered around a mother's life. How much more evidence do you need that you exist, than to have given birth? How much more reason to exist, through happiness or sadness than to know your own children? How much more tied to happiness and sadness is the idea of raising, loving and letting go of your children.