Towards A Good Samaritan World

Sunday, July 23, 2006

ON THE NATURE OF MAN

A distinction between mind and matter is a conceptual fundamental-- in every culture that I have studied, it is present. It comes from our experience, which consists of thought and the senses. (Perhaps our experience is not limited to these categories, but I, at least, am at a loss to name other aspects of it.)

Each person, each subject, each I-- for most purposes we identify subjects with human beings, but it is plausible that animals too are subjects, are I to themselves; beyond these, many wise people have believed in various ranks of angels, or, before that, pagan gods, not to mention God (I AM); in short, a subject is not at all defined as a human being, human form being only the accidental form of the class of subjects that we know best, but rather is anything that can (not necessarily in human words of course) say I-- possesses, or consists of, a perpetual sequence and motion of thought, an internal monologue for which, unlike external monologues, language is optional; language to this internal monologue is like a garment, which may be worn or not worn at leisure, so that words are intermingled with what may be called "images" if that word can be taken to be five-dimensional, drawing in the natures of all the five senses. In the mind also are concepts, forms or ideas in the Platonic sense, which are not reducible to images if those are assumed to be the copies or echoes of sensory experience: a reader who doubts that there are such concepts should reflect on the nature of numbers, for two can never occur in nature, for no "two" things are ever wholly alike, and it is only our mysterious capacity to generalize which allows us to reify objects, classify them with names, and say there are "two" of this or that.

Thought is a realm that is inherently difficult to describe, because it occurs within a subject; no one can ever enter my thoughts and experience them as I experience them, nor can I ever enter anyone else's. We can describe it only with metaphors, drawing our metaphors from the external world: we grasp a concept, we follow an argument; "intelligent" comes from a Latin word meaning to "see" or to "make out", as in making out a shape through a mist or fog.

Within the thought-realm of each subject is a will; and there is an intriguing contrast between the dominion that the will possesses over the thought-realm within and the dominion that it possesses over that small piece of the external world, the body, with which it is for a time connected. The power of the will over the body is limited yet has a certain regularity: I know that neither today nor tomorrow can I command my body to fly, but if I can master my own thoughts so as to pay sufficient attention to the task, I can without doubt command my fingers to type these sentences on this keyboard, and I have no fear that my fingers will type some other sentences of which I disapprove, contrary to my will. Within the realm of my thought, the powers of my will are both more and less: I can, in thought, be the ruler of vast kingdoms, I can create suns and moons and mountains a thousand miles high, and I can run up them without losing my breath, and leap off their cliffs and fly like an eagle along their slopes... And yet at the same time, my own thoughts can torment me; I can find myself (myself?-- which am I, my thoughts or my will?) thinking, against my will, thoughts so painful that I would prefer to cease to exist rather than to think them. At a time in my life when I was so tormented by my thoughts that I was tempted by suicide I wrote the following words (as part of a song):

I'm all alone
With my thoughts
I've got to make it
Through another night

Killers
Stalk the streets of my mind
And they grow bold
With the fading of the light

There's nowhere to run
And I'm running out of places to hide
So if you can hear me, friend,
Then help me fight the demons inside.


Does it make sense to distinguish mind and body? Is a mind without a body, a being of pure thought, possible? In waking life, sensory experience such a large share of the content of our thoughts, that existence without the senses may seem like an impossible or absurd idea; but dreams are an example where we lose our awareness of the external world for a time and become, in a sense, beings of pure thought. Dreams are occasionally wonderful, but in general, there is something awry about them, and they often turn into nightmares, from which we are happy to "wake up," that is, to be put in touch anew with the space-between-minds, the physical world.

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