All The Things I Thought I Knew


Image from wikipedia.

This is a work of fiction.

“Who could we get who’s as good as David Foster Wallace?”

My daughter Sevi had been selected to find a “commencement address” speaker for their local high school, which was interesting, considering that she had never attended it — she had been unschooled, and although she could have breezed through the equivalency exams she was still young and in no hurry to do so. But she knew many of the top students there, and had agreed to see who she could find, especially if it was someone who was also unschooled.

She’d done her homework on the project, and was looking for someone who could deliver something like David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece — but someone who was still alive. She even asked me if I was up for the job.

I told her that was a tall order, that David’s speech set an impossible standard, and that in any case I no longer gave any advice, and advice on what to do with the rest of their lives was what they would be looking for. She frowned and told me I was always giving her advice. I promised not to do so in the future as long as she didn’t ask me to give a commencement address. I thought high schools had valedictorians, but apparently with the disappearance of precise grades, they were starting to substitute commencement speeches instead.

“So why don’t you give advice any more?”, she asked me.

“Because I don’t know anything. I thought I did once, but I was mistaken.”

“You were a big success in business, so you must know something“, she replied. “Tell them how they can succeed.”

“My apparent success in business had nothing to do with me. What this apparent creature allegedly did in the past, and will do in the future, has nothing to do with ‘me’. It is the only thing that creature could have done, given the circumstances of the moment and the creature’s enculturated and biological conditioning.”

Sevi rolled her eyes at me. “Here we go with the non-duality stuff again. Could you please not refer to yourself in the third person? That privilege is reserved for old queens.” She did a Queen Victoria imitation, saying with a mock-British accent “The Queen advises caution, sir. We are not amused.” I laughed.

“There is no me, just as there is no one and no thing and no time, just what is apparently happening, so using the first person is just perpetuating a false but accepted illusion. I prefer gerunding“, I said. “Gerunds are western languages’ way of re-presenting something mistakenly thought of as a thing, a noun, as a verb instead, as a process. It’s the best invention of English grammar. Gerunds even take adverbs as modifiers, instead of adjectives. So I could say, for example, ‘We are wickedly plotting to sabotage the commencement address.’ There is no ‘we’ and no ‘commencement address’ and no ‘plot’ but there seems to be plotting happening.” I paused and then with an exaggerated smile added “I could talk about gerunds at the commencement address.”

You are wickedly plotting to sabotage the commencement, not ‘we'”, Sevi replied. She added “And I caught you saying ‘I’ which is not at all gerundive, or non-dual. And there will be no talk of gerunds at the commencement address.” She laughed, while still trying to look serious.

“Some reprimanding going on here, it would appear”, I replied.

“I’m going to whack you every time you use a gerund. If you don’t want to make the address, who do you think would make a good one? I’d like to ask Arundhati Roy if she’d record one and they could play it at their graduation. Better ideas?”

“That would be fun. I would ask anyone who acknowledges that they aren’t real, and that they know nothing.” When she reached out to slap me, I added: “In this case, despite its ending, nothing is not a gerund. Although perhaps it should be.”

“That’s not helpful, Dad”, she replied.

“I suppose telling the eager graduates that they have no free will and no responsibility and can take no credit for their successes, nor blame for their failures, wouldn’t be setting the tone they’re looking for. But it’s the truth. ‘We’ make no decisions to do or not do anything, we merely rationalize what these creatures we appear to inhabit do as if they were ‘our’ decisions, ‘our’ choices. When there is no ‘us’ to make them.”

“Not buying it Dad. You keep quoting Daniel Quinn advising his readers not to waste time talking to people who aren’t ready to listen. They’re not ready to listen to your ‘radical non-duality’ message. I’m not ready to listen to it. Talk to us again when there’s been a glimpse of the veracity of what you believe. Until then, meet us where we are, and stop wasting everyone’s time.”

She was right, or course. Way smarter than I’ll ever be. What do you talk about when you discover that everything you thought you knew was wrong, and what you believe instead is so preposterous that people think you’re kidding, or having some kind of spiritual or life-passage crisis? I sighed. I didn’t have any idea what to say, but I knew this creature that I seem to inhabit was going to say something anyway. So I tried to shut up and listen to it. It said:

“We think we know ourselves, but we don’t. We base our entire existence on the belief that we acquire knowledge that enables us to make better decisions that will improve our lives, our capacities, and make the world a better place. But we don’t know ourselves at all. Why do we cheat on our diets, or on our spouses? Why do we procrastinate when we ‘know’ something needs to be done? Why do we get depressed when it serves us no useful purpose? Why do we fall in love with people who are often entirely wrong for us, and overlook people for whom we might be ideally suited? We haven’t the faintest idea. That’s because ‘we’ aren’t doing any of this. We are not in charge, not in control. ‘We’ don’t exist, except as a figment of our brain’s furious patterning to try to make sense of things”.

The creature continued: “And we think we know other people as well, what they are thinking or feeling. We don’t. They may try to clue us in, but they don’t know either. When couples split, they often say that they don’t even recognize the person who they are (often bitterly) separating from. The truth is, nobody knows anything. Even worse, there is no one to know anything.”

“Are you done?”, Sevi replied. I nodded. “You know”, she said, “I’m not entirely unsympathetic with your non-duality riff. So maybe we don’t, or can’t, ‘know’ anything or anyone, including ourselves. And maybe we’re not in control of ourselves at all. And maybe our selves are just a construct, a fictive ‘invention of the brain looking inward’. And maybe nothing has any meaning or purpose. Bring this back to a room full of students who are bewildered and scared and aimless, looking for some insight, some direction, something they can actually use. They have no expectations, except some boring speech that at best will be short and have a couple of good jokes. What do we give them?”

I just beamed at her. “God you’re smart. I am so blessed to have someone so brilliant and astonishing and together in my life.”

She raised one eyebrow at me again, in a half-smile, half-scowl. “Thank you but you’re mistaken and that doesn’t answer the question.”

I sighed. I thought for a moment and then said. “Anything we could say to them would be a lie. It would be suggesting they could and should do something they can’t choose to do or not do. We could be honest and tell them upfront that what we were about to say was a lie, because we can’t be other than who we are. And then we could tell them that if it were possible to actually control what we think and do, it might be useful to become more self-aware. That’s different from knowing. Self-awareness is, well, mostly about just paying attention to what’s happening, inside and outside us, and catching oneself making judgements about it, making up stories about it, attaching meaning to it, deciding what ‘should’ and could be done as a result of it, and so on. Self-awareness might even be considered a modest, undirected form of meditation. No expectations, no judgements, no analysis. Just looking at something or someone and realizing that there are no boundaries between it and everything else, that it’s all just waves and particles (or waving and particling). Just accepting, being a part. Not acknowledging, because that’s ‘making sense’, ‘knowledge’ stuff again. Just sitting with what apparently is, and doing our best to quiet our thoughts and feelings. Doesn’t have to be sitting in a posture, or silent, or eyes-closed. Just trying to see, and see through, what it is that we usually see as our ‘self’.” I took a deep breath and continued:

“And then when you come back into your self and have to deal with the apparent stuff in the ‘real’ world, it’s about listening, silencing the chatter that judges and makes meaning about what is being heard and noticed, just being with the apparent other creatures in these apparent places — not distancing or dissociating but rather stopping reacting and assessing and thinking. Doing the David Foster Wallace being-aware thing of “experiencing a crowded, loud, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.”

I was nearly done, and on the edge of tears, wondering if speaking these words to my wonderful daughter was perhaps a terrible disservice: “Of course no one can intentionally choose to become more self-aware. It’s either something the character we presume to inhabit is inherently inclined or has been conditioned  to think of as useful to do, or it’s not. If the listener to your commencement speech is so inclined, maybe they will, in time, depending on their inherent nature and conditioning and the circumstances that arise, do more noticing and less thinking. And they in turn may inspire others to do likewise, so that a tiny shift in enculturated conditioning multiplies outward and more people start noticing more and thinking about it less — both noticing inwards as self-awareness and noticing outwards as awareness of what is without attaching meaning or volition to it. I think that would be good. I like the word ‘awareness’; it comes from the same root as ‘wary’, and encourages us to be critical thinkers and critical perceivers, to challenge everything. That is the best that I think a commencement address could do, although it wouldn’t be what the audience would prefer, which is to be lied to, to be made to feel better about themselves and their capacities for a little while, by telling them how wonderful they are and how amazing the future could be if only they work hard with the right intention and all that crap. With a few clever jokes mixed in.”

Sevi was thinking hard. “So this speech that promises to give no advice is telling them to challenge everything, to hone their skills at noticing and self-awareness. Is that what you mean by having to lie to them?”

“Basically, yes. You could leave out the non-duality stuff and just talk about the importance of noticing and self-awareness and challenging everything, with some lovely David Foster Wallace type fer’instances, and some examples that relate to what they are most bewildered and scared and aimless about, and with a few clever jokes mixed in, and you’d have yourself a pretty passable speech, I think.”

“So will you give it?”

“Not me”, I replied. “They want someone they look up to, or at least that they can relate to. Someone younger. Someone with more empathy than me. Someone cute and funny.”

Sevi gave me an exasperated look. “I look up to you. I relate to you. You’re more empathetic than most fathers. And…” (she wrinkled her nose and smiled as she considered how to complete the sentence) “… you can be funny, when you want to be.”

I just looked at her and shook my head. I was not going to get out of this without identifying someone who could deliver this message more persuasively than I could, or otherwise discouraging her from letting me loose on these poor unsuspecting souls. I smiled back at her.

“I could tell them about bats“, I volunteered. “Did you know a bat’s DNA is closer to ours than it is to either a bird’s or a mouse’s? That they can fly up to 60 miles per hour and because of their flexible wings have flight agility eight times more precise than birds’? And that one species has a wingspan of six feet and another weighs less than a penny? And that there are 1200 staggeringly different species? And…”

Sevi crossed her arms and interrupted me, in an irritated tone. “You are not talking to the graduating class about bats… That’s what you have a blog for.”

Touché. We sat quietly for a moment, thinking. Finally, I said:

“Tell you what. You identify a woman — the world has heard enough speeches by white guys — who appreciates the importance of attention and noticing and self-awareness and challenging everything, and, if she wants, I’ll help her write or edit the speech.”

Sevi sighed. “Hmmm… fair, but could be awkward. Selecting someone and then telling them what you want their message to be. I’ll think about it. Thanks. You know — you know a lot more than you think you do.”

“Nope”, I said, shaking my head. “I don’t know anything. But thanks to smart people like you asking great questions, I may be somehow becoming less stupid. Thanks for helping me pay attention. And for helping me challenge everything.”

“Can’t help it”, she replied with a smile, heading out the door, and then, with a snicker, added: “‘This is the only thing the creature that I presume to inhabit can do, given its inherent nature and enculturated conditioning, and the circumstances of the moment.'”

And then, to prove she’d really done her homework, she stuck her head back through the door and quoted DFW, perfectly: “‘I’d tell you all you want and more, if the sounds I made could be what you hear’”.

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2 Responses to All The Things I Thought I Knew

  1. Brent Gulanowski says:

    Interesting ideas. However, some of them seem based on faith, not reason. This is just my immediate intuitive response.

    These kinds of ideas about self, causality, intentionality and choice seem to make it harder to think about life and our experience of it, not easier. Annoyingly, as provocative and in some ways even attractive as it may be to deny individuality or rational choice, or to dismiss them as myths, I don’t think it’s disprovable, scientifically, and I don’t think it’s actually possible to live according to such beliefs.

    The sense of self is an evolved feature of the human individual. It may be distorted, but it seems pointless to assume that it’s completely wrong. Now, the idea that no one really is to blame for anything may be a good thought experiment. It may also be true, in some frames of reference. But it doesn’t seem to be true in all frames of reference.

    The “self” is a hard thing to define. But I don’t see any problem using an “I” or other pronouns. The individual behaves. This we can observe. The individual interacts and communicates. If I share information and ideas with you, you can repeat them back to me. This knowledge affects your behaviour if the knowledge is relevant to the kinds of behaviours you engage in.

    For example, a young person chooses which university to attend, or any at all, based on some evaluation process of the information available about the benefits of going to different universities. Granted, given more information, they will make a different choice. So it’s clear that decision making happens under incomplete information. But that doesn’t mean that there is no decision being made, or that there is no individual making the decision, even if the sense of self-awareness is not the same part of the individual as the part that makes the decision. I don’t see any need for them to be.

    People use information to make decisions. Their conscious self-aware self observes this decision-making, and assumes that the decision was also conscious. This may be a misunderstanding, but it’s functional and practical. I don’t see how it is a “lie”, though. There is on moral failure or intellectual failure in the act of a self that observes extending its identity to include the body and brain it finds itself in. Who else is going to take responsibility for that individual’s actions? Even given that there the web of causality is technically spread out in space and time, the individual is to some degree self-contained, even if not wholly self-sufficient. It is a reasonable approximation, just as Newtonian physics is a reasonable approximation, not a falsehood.

    It’s a separate issue that people might over-emphasize the degree of responsibility to spiritual levels, or to want to use punishment or revenge to fulfill some sense of justice that they imagine. But these are all evolved social behaviours. Our understanding of our own behaviours, while often incorrect, is correctable, and our behaviour is to some degree modifiable by this improvement in understanding. It may not change how we feel (say, but “curing” us of a desire for revenge that is irrational), but we can interpret those feelings differently, and thus act differently.

    The subjective feeling of being alive and conscious will never totally make sense. It’s always going to be confusing and contradictory with apparent “objective” truths. But it’s a reasonable approximation and we can refine our understanding enough to get on with living, and not need to confuse ourselves too much with doubts about whether making choices matters or not. Since we will make choices anyway, and many of those choices will involve communication with other people, either individually or in a broadcast medium like a presentation.

    Finally, while I strongly advocate and agree with the stance of uncertainty of knowledge, it is definitely not true that no one knows anything. We know a lot of things. We even know some finite things approximately perfectly, even if we do not know any class of knowledge comprehensively. For example, we know arithmetic and calculus. We know that the derivate of f=x^2 is f=2x. We know our names and approximate locations in space and time. And we know enough other stuff to do a lot of things, even if much of this knowing and acting happens independently of the voice that believes it is the pilot of the craft. But that’s OK. We’re still individuals. We may have complex, multi-faceted and social minds inside each skull, but we can still distinguish between one individual person and another one, and between one feeling or thought and another one.

    Most of the choices we make everyday are unconscious, it seems. That is, different parts of our bodies and brains are doing the work of making various choices. But some of the choices are deliberate and conscious. If they weren’t, we would never learn new behaviours or adapt to new situations through conscious observation and interpretation. It is our higher faculties that notice new information and decide how to incorporate it into our existing, finite, world view.

    Maybe that’s not the whole story. And maybe it seems to rely on the myth of free will. But the existince or not of free will is beside the point. It’s not disprovable anyway, because it’s a language construct. Individual people do things, and their awareness of their ability to choose to do one thing or another is what is important, not how free they are to make decisions.

    There is no benefit to trying to chase one’s tail in this matter. You, as an individual, are free to get up early or to sleep in. Whether you do may depend wholly on your programming—genetic and social—but it’s still a fact that you mechanically encapsulate the entirety of the apparatus needed to make the decision. In that way, it’s your choice, and no one else’s. While it logically silly to assign a value to responsibility for the decision, it’s socially valuable to recognize the individual’s self-sufficiency to make that decision when the time comes to make it.

    We can always change the context to change the truth value or moral value of any action or its consequences. So, if that helps, OK, that’s a personal choice, I guess. If it’s not, then you’re still left with the feeling of being able to make a choice, including whether to give a commencement speech or not. If you don’t make that choice, who does? Your genes? Your parents? Your government? Those are even less reasonable. God? The universe? How is that meaningful?

    Anyway, interesting stuff, maybe I’ll drop by again.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Brent. In one sense, I agree with you completely. I’ve been through this same thought process, and your conclusions follow logically from your premises, and your premises seem internally consistent and are widely accepted in our culture (society, science etc) as correct. And they cannot be disproved with any tools at our disposal.

    In another sense, I have come to doubt the validity of this entire line of thought, because if you start from another basic premise — that there is no thing apart from anything else — and that it is a mystery how our brains came to construct a worldview of apart-ness as real, then everything that comes from that worldview (ie all ‘knowledge’, and the sense of a separate self that ‘knows’) must be illusory. This alternative worldview (let’s call it the ‘null’ worldview) is much simpler and even more internally consistent than the ‘prevailing’ worldview of what is real. It is neither provable nor disprovable. It is utterly useless, so it is not surprising that it’s not particularly popular. But there have been many glimpses (here, and clearly by hundreds of ‘people’ who have written about their ‘experiences’ of liberation from the self, enlightenment, transcendence etc) with eerily similar descriptions, that suggest it might be true. That’s connecting the dots, not faith. And that’s what this story (and its apparent author) are exploring, nothing more, nothing less.

    You wrote: “These kinds of ideas about self, causality, intentionality and choice seem to make it harder to think about life and our experience of it, not easier. Annoyingly, as provocative and in some ways even attractive as it may be to deny individuality or rational choice, or to dismiss them as myths, I don’t think it’s disprovable, scientifically, and I don’t think it’s actually possible to live according to such beliefs.” Exactly.

    Thank you!

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