Ben Cordry

Heraclitian Provocations


Worldviews are architectural in nature:  they are solid and unmoving, they weather storms, they shelter, they are inorganic.  They are finished, but decay without maintenance.

Embellishments and facades obscure the arteries.  But, even minimalism is an aesthetic choice.

 Reflective consciousness tends to hold the world before itself as determinate and complete:  “The world is a re-arranging of substances within a fixed structure of order”; “All things are fore-known and fore-ordained by God”.  These statements are a sketch.   The details are to be filled in later, when needed or as desired.

Often reflective consciousness dogmatically takes itself to be yet one more thing alongside what it posits.  It might be a mysterious product of mundane substances or perhaps a peculiar substance in its own right.  The idealists push here thusly:  “Insofar as reflective consciousness represents reality, it can never come before itself as a part of that represented reality.  The painter cannot really paint herself painting – the canvas gives a flattened presentation of her body as it was.  Reflective consciousness is thus not one thing alongside others.  It occupies a peculiar lacuna in being:  the pure I.  It may even be the ground of being”.

Dogmatism and idealism are symptoms of the will to nothingness – to be done, intellectually anyway, with the world.

We often have difficulty dealing with our origins.  They are too humble for us.  It is a disappointing fact that the body was born:  “Yes, my body began with an orgasm, fertilization, birth.  Yes, it suckled.  Yes, it defecated uncontrollably.  But, what’s that to do with me?”  Plato was so ashamed of being born that his account of the transmigration of souls fails even to see that there is a question regarding why migration and sex are correlated.  For his part, Descartes apparently held that God takes some sex acts as the occasion to create, from nothing, a whole new soul (complete with a silent, murmuring ‘I think’). 

Birth is too common to baffle us.  It should astound us far more than the platitudinous ‘miracle’ indicates.

Our evolutionary origins create a puzzle that elides its deeper significance.  Because evolution is a new idea, it conflicts with established traditions.  The puzzle is to reconcile the two:  should one give way or can they be synthesized?  Here’s an instance of dogmatic thinking:  “If we came from that, we must be nothing more than a re-arrangement of what that was.  That’s not very dignified, so if we’re that, we aren’t dignified either”.  Theistic evolution to the rescue!  “We’re dignified because we’re a peculiar re-arrangement of that brought about in a wholly abnormal way”.  That’s a mighty fine reconciliation.  Here, for the sake of intellectual comfort, an opportunity to be genuinely astounded has been missed.  We’ve evolved by natural processes from living things very different from ourselves.  That’s astonishing.  That’s humbling.  That’s awe-inspiring.  The spiritual experience to be had in realizing that we evolved is far more profound than any dogma vouchsafed by sophistical reasoning.  Fear that our expectations will disintegrate and our traditions flounder intimidates us into shutting the door on wonder.

Waking up is baffling.  Aristotle held that learning a general truth is analogous to the way a routed army takes a stand:  first one soldier stops and holds his ground, then another, then another, until once again the army is fighting as a unit.  This is an apt image for waking up.  The conscious self arises not all at once and not in an orderly way.  Every morning the organism creates the conscious self, but it doesn’t do so the way consciousness itself creates breakfast (and thereby the organism).  The organism produces the self and the self produces the organism, but not in the same way.

Reflection has modest origins.  It doesn’t purposefully bring itself about because then it would have to pre-exist itself.  In the moment, it is brought about by something:  a broken tack hammer, an unexpected noise, boredom.  Reflection is made possible by the training of the organism through learning language.  Here, the first word isn’t ‘I’ but ‘mama’.  This first word does not express a judgment.  The ‘I think’ follows much later.  The living organism first reports its states and wants to mother:  “I want candy”, “My tummy hurts”.  ‘I think’ is at first not even a mental report, it is a tentative way of expressing a judgment (“I think the tie is yellow”) or a tentative way of expressing a report (“I think I want a burger”).  The ‘I think’ achieves its fullness with an inward confidence that fixes a report of the way things are (“I think the mind is the brain”).

Behind the work of reflection are feelings, desires, instincts, habits, acquired behavioral patterns.  Conscious reflection is built on pre-reflective and pre-rational psychological connections and the dispositional characteristics of the organism.  Reflection itself is symbiotic with conversation:  solitary reflection is a kind of imagined dialogue and the thoroughly unreflective person has nothing to say.  This symbiosis roots reflection in a social context.  Styles of reflection are often learned.

Another example of dogmatism:  “Reflection is a re-arrangement of non-rational psychological associations in a social context.  Therefore, rational, guided, purposeful thought is an illusion”.

Creation is not a re-arrangement.  Neither is it ex-nihilo.  Creating depends on what came before, but transcends it. 

Pictures like billiard tables and pyramids come easily before the mind.  They mesmerize and seduce.  They are easy models to sketch from.

Every model of reality is fallacious.  “Reality is X”.  But, whatever X is, it must be a part of reality, else it cannot be understood.  So, “Reality is a part of reality”. We cannot say anything of the whole.  However, talk about the whole is useful insofar as it opens up new discourses regarding how one part is related to another.  Psychologically, talk of the whole suggests that a person should settle down on some fixed, comprehensive worldview – failure to do so is a kind of irrationality or immaturity.

Questions come to an end with a revelation of our own ignorance, apathy, or arrogance:  “I don’t know”; “I don’t care”; “It is obvious that this must be the case”.

Heraclites compared reality to fire.  This is a kind of anti-model:  fire is orderly yet unpredictable, it depends on what is burning but is different from what burns, it is constantly changing, it looks substantial but is not solid.  Flames arise and decay.  They are similar but unique.

The reflective self dissipates.  The organism gets drawn to the field of action, consciousness loses itself in art, the organism sleeps, the organism dies.  In each case, the deliberate, rational controller is extinguished.  A person absorbed in her own thoughts is a bad athlete and a worse lover.  A person enmeshed in looking and hearing is not judging.  Sleep brings about not only the absence of judgment, but of awareness.  Death makes this permanent.

Falling asleep is astonishing.  One cannot deliberately do this – somehow one forgets to pay attention to things or can no longer expend the effort to do so. 

Death is not only astonishing; it puts us face-to-face with our egoism:  we nearly can’t imagine the world going on meaningfully without us.  It also shows a childish demand:  if my life can’t go on indefinitely, then it isn’t worthwhile.

There is a practical parallel to settling on a fixed, comprehensive worldview.  That is to understand the point.  “The point is to experience”; “The point is to be”; “The point is to do”.  As above, this is based on a confusion between parts and wholes.  Activities, practices, and processes often have points.  These are all encompassed by the whole.  The whole can’t have a point – it doesn’t have the right kind of context to allow it to point beyond itself.  A life could have a point if there were some self-same project the life was absorbed in throughout its course.  But, this can’t be.  First, because by the time the reflective self hatches to direct its life deliberately, the self is already engaged in many projects (staying healthy, learning language, building things with legos, etc.).  Organisms already engaged in projects become conscious, reflective, and self-conscious.  Numerous teleological activities pre-date the reflective self.  The need for conscious guidance in these activities is an imperative for the organism to create the reflective self.  Second, even if one were to commit to a project and disavow one’s childly endeavors, this wouldn’t make that project the point – life is too unpredictable, too beyond control.  So long as there is life, there is room for some other project and some other point to be pursued.

One is not merely along for the ride.  Reflective consciousness is itself a creative force.

What is left of the self after bodily death?  Children.  Social projects.  Possessions.  The memories others have.  The impacts of one’s life.  Like a ripple these will be diffused.  Nevertheless they are real.

Repitition perdures.  Others will continue to participate in the same activities and will affirm the value of those things.  Others will deliberately pursue the same sorts of experience.  Others will engage in some of the same arguments.

One can’t ask for more than to be valued by those one respects (or would) and to have that which one values repeated by those whom one respects (or would).

Even here there is uncertainty:  “Maybe the people who value my life are people I wouldn’t respect if I knew them better.  Maybe the people I really do respect would not repeat the activities and experiences in my life that I value”.

Our lives are judged.  But our ability to know and control this judgment is limited.  Reality and our demands fit poorly:  we would like there to be a single judgment, to know it, and to be able to control it through responsible effort.  The desire to judge the world to be X is intertwined with the desire to judge our lives to be Y.  Childishness again:  “If I can’t control the judgment and may not know it, it doesn’t matter”.