Saturday, November 5, 2016

Therefore I Am. Or Might Be. It's Hard to Say.

Reading Paul Kalanithi's memoir got me thinking - ha ha, brain surgery, thinking, i kill me - a lot again, as you do every now and then and then have to stop because it makes your head hurt, about the whole question of what makes a person, and the whole intractable problem of metaphysics - trying to come at the issues of being in the world from outside the world, where you can never be -  and the mind and the soul and how trying to use the brain to think about the brain is very, very difficult, especially when your brain is forty-something and has raised two kids and weathered a lot of tequila shots.

Have you seen those medical shows where someone comes into the hospital with something sharp stuck in their brain, and when it gets removed they're ostensibly fine, but their personality has changed, like they're nice when they used to be cranky, or cranky when they used to be nice? Is that not really, really freaky? Something could happen to one tiny part of your brain and suddenly you'd be practically the same person except now you'd like olives, or think hunting sounds fun, or believe that Michael Bolton is a sound musical choice? I find this terrifying.

You know the research that shows that the memory you have of an event is actually a memory of the last memory you had of the event? And if one detail changes once, then it's in the next memory, and then more details can get changed, until you think you're remembering your aunt's wedding when you've actually completely rebuilt a memory of watching your father build a dog house? Or something?

I read this really cool book called Betraying Spinoza. I say this only because I remember I read the book and Spinoza has something to do with philosophy, not because I remember anything about the book enough to converse intelligently about, Jesus what do you want, it was six fucking years ago. Actually I do remember that while I was reading it I realized how far back the whole anti-Semitism thing went, how stupid it seemed even then, and how depressing it was to realize how deep and ineradicable the roots seemed - much like when I read I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage and realized the same thing about women. Let's just get off this subject before I go out and dick-punch the first white male I see, which is more than likely to be my husband and that really wouldn't be cool - he's a good egg, he can't help it if his collective race and gender has its collective head up its collective butt.

Isn't it just really weird to think that who you are, your thoughts, your opinions, your political leanings, what you think about religious faith, your favourite colours, your favourite foods, whether you can speak other languages well - it all comes down to a bunch of neurons and electrochemical signals zipping around in the squishy gray matter in your head? It becomes more understandable why religious people came up with the soul - some glowy thing in the general vicinity of your heart and breast is a more palatable representation of selfhood than mushy colourless stuff between your ears.

I always have an indefensible knee-jerk reaction against philosophy - that it's silly to spend all of one's time in rarefied discussion of intangible issues like whether what we perceive is really real, or whether free will exists; spinning endless ostensibly logical frameworks for things that, in the end, can never really be proven or known for sure. If you step into traffic, does it really matter whether you'll never know for sure if the car that hit you is only a Platonic shadow? You're still going to have a grill mark on your ass. It makes sense, though, of course it does, that people want to understand the nature of reality. It's just that the study of philosophy seems often to result in one taking oneself quite terribly seriously, and that's just not my thing.

It all makes me think that maybe I should try reading some Kant and Aristotle (again), and at the same time makes me want to hide under the bed with cashews and zombie stories.

5 comments:

Swistle said...

Long ago, during college, I read an article about a study that showed that people with religious faith showed an enlargement in a particular part of the brain. The study found that if that area were enlarged artificially, such as by an injury, the person would develop devout faith where no such faith previously existed. The study found that this area of the brain was prone to either swelling or shrinking during a person's early 20s, causing either a Sudden Discovery of Religion or a Sudden Loss of Faith. I found this mesmerizing, since I had recently and abruptly lost the religious faith I'd sustained without effort, and I was 20 years old.

Steph Lovelady said...

Save some cashews and zombie stories for me. Could we have the honey-roasted kind?

Hannah said...

"If you step into traffic, does it really matter whether you'll never know for sure if the car that hit you is only a Platonic shadow? You're still going to have a grill mark on your ass."

OH MY GOD. You just hit it bang on the head why my first year of university felt like such a colossal waste of time. I did Foundation Year at King's College, which is this prestigious program and everyone who takes it is just insufferable about it. I spent the whole year with a tension headache wondering why, exactly, any of it was relevant.

I'm getting that printed on a t-shirt, I swear.

Julie L said...

I've read two philosophy books. And they both stuck with me. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Sophie's World. The latter still sticks with me. I loved it. I was also in my mid-20s and on a trip around the world by myself. I wonder if I would still relate to them now.

Nicole Boyhouse said...

Swistle's comment above is very eye opening! So is this whole post, really.