News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Driven to Distraction (2)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Driven to Distraction (2)

Are we distracted? Does the outside world distract us from some important truth or reality that we should otherwise be looking at or doing or both?

Right off, there seems to be something wrong with this notion of a passive viewer. It assumes a lot about consciousness and the way that I engage the world and what's "out there." (And I think of the motto for one of my favorite TV shows, the X-Files: "The truth is out there.")

What's askew--and perhaps not exactly wrong--here is the opposition between an inside and outside to how I live in the world. The reason this is important to realize is that this notion of inside and outside leads people to think that there's an inside world inside me as opposed to an outside world that somehow influences me in ways that the inside sometimes does not perceive.

Why it's not wrong to think this way is because we often find ourselves thinking about memories and ideas and perhaps images that only we personally can access. (actually do we really "think about" memories, etc. or just remember--no thinking about occurring at all.)

These things are private to me, it's said. They make up "my world," as distinct from what others have or have not perceived. In this sense, I can therefore seemingly ask whether I can ever really know someone else. Since their world is cut off from mine, since they have memories and perceive the world by way of these memories (apparently) then I have no way of really knowing what they're thinking.

Yes, we cannot really know anyone. We can't see into their heads, so to speak. But who says we could? While it makes sense to talk about really knowing someone, things go awry when we take that talk and try to literalize it. To make like there is an actual room or space in the brain where--if I had god-like powers, say, or a special instrument--I'd be able to see what you or anyone else are thinking.

And isn't this notion really attractive or alluring? Isn't it perhaps related to the notion of the "fly sitting on the wall" seeing and overhearing unseen what others are doing? The wish to really see what others are like--what they really do in secret--goes at least as far back as Plato and the ring that makes one invisible.

So the idea of an inside versus an outside is compelling and perhaps reflects old desires to see the world as if we weren't there. The notion that if I didn't exist or weren't somehow perceived, I'd be able to see the world as it really is.

This desire to see the world as it really is seems to be something that science can give us. The world as it is--unskewed by personal concerns, memories, biases, or what have you--can be given to me by scientists with their tools of objectivity. This is a very attractive and appealing notion: to be given the world as it is, unvarnished and throbbing with the very juices of life, so to speak, drives a deep well into our inmost desires and needs.

What many thinkers of one branch of philosophy question, though, is whether science or even philosophy itself can deliver this viewpoint. Can we really detach ourselves from what time and personal histories have made us? Can we really disengage from our bodies and its needs and desires to attain that god-view? Are we really unable to know other's in such a radical way that they are closed to understanding?

Though some of these questions are more obvious than others, neither seems easier than any other to answer--at least in a way that everyone would agree on. Maybe there is no one answer and the fact that we tend to want an all-comprehending answer that covers questions of this kind is a problem of its own.

That suggestion, or insight, is what the philosopher Wittgenstein suggested. Seeking what I call the decoder book to all questions is the sign of a common human failing. It's a failing in the sense that such a decoder book leads us to think that we have answered questions that really aren't questions to start with. Indeed, the notion of a decoder book leads people to seek that which covers up what is ultimately in front of us all the time.

The preceding remarks are a short introduction were meant as a way of getting at what it might to be distracted. I launched into the introduction because I wanted to see why we want to differentiate a world inside from a world outside us. The argument itself is the barest outline of what is called Wittgenstein's rebuttal of the idea that there can be a private language that no one else could understand.

What the argument seems to describe are fundamental facts of human language. That is, language is not some individual accomplishment. It is a socialized phenomenon that we learn via numerous linguistic and non-linguistic practices. The ability to learn language is inherent to the human animal in its biological and social existence.

Language, then, is important in understanding that in understanding being distracted we should be discussing what words and stories relate to being distracted.

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