Tag Archives: Consciousness

Fever dreams

A strange, dreamlike day, this.

I awoke from vivid dreams of being back in college, in the company of a girl I never knew: straight black hair, dark and distant eyes, aloof and openly hostile and strangely compelling — a mix of Aliera from Jane Yolen’s Foiled and something else entirely. She kept insisting that I had to “zap the bat,” whatever that meant; her respect for me depended on it. I had to “zap the bat, zap the bat.” And perhaps I even knew what she meant. Then we went out to dinner, and the restaurant of her choice turned out to be a cafeteria serving ham-and-jelly sandwiches.

Awake, I daydreamed about Barbara Gowdy’s novel The White Bone, which I’ve just finished, and obsessed over the pain and anguish of its great-hearted elephant characters. Then I thought about animal morality again, and animal consciousness, and looked at videos of chimps and elephants mourning their dead. We spend too much effort, I thought, ascribing intention and emotion to the wrong things — to the weather, to volcanoes and earthquakes, to God — and not enough effort in recognizing minds where they do exist: in the animals we live with, the ones we gape at in their enclosures, the ones we see pixelated onscreen. We are surrounded by their dreams.

Then, tonight, a lovely dinner with my wife, at a French restaurant called Robin des Bois whose decor absolutely astonished me: a junkyard of odds and ends, seemingly thrown thoughtlessly together, perfectly unintelligible and yet making perfect sense. A giant bottle in the entryway. An enormous, low-hanging crystal chandelier. Beyond that, a chipped statue of the Madonna and Child. Behind it, a pair of kitschy plastic swordfish hanging on the walls. An old Coca-Cola sign. The enormous face of Jimi Hendrix in the bathroom, watching you pee, while a sticker slapped casually on the mirror demanded “No Smokin’.” The music was a mishmash of old Kinks and ’80s New Wave and some recent, jittery stuff that neither of us recognized. The menu covers featured paintings of women in Bettie Page pinup poses. My wife had a ginger martini and I had a Pomigo (Stoli Orange, pomegranate juice, and lime), which added a dreamlike haze to the dream.

(The excellent food, at least, felt real. Much better than ham-and-jelly sandwiches, and with much better company.)

Walking home, slightly drunk, holding hands, focusing on the single bright star in the cursedly light-polluted New York sky. No, not a star, not twinkling, but a planet, shining steadily: Venus, the Evening Star. At a street corner we stopped for a family biking past, Mom and Dad and Big Brother on separate bikes, and a little toddler strapped into his seat behind Mom’s, saying: “Mom, you said there were no bad people in New York, and you lied!” But said, somehow, without reproach or condemnation; with the matter-of-factness of an ethnographer making notes on the strange people around him and the strange things they say.

On this strange day of dreams and half-dreams, in this strange and dreamlike city.

(Image credit: Dreaming in Technicolor)


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On being skeptical of skeptics

Freddie DeBoer on his blog L’Hote posts an interesting response to Sam Harris’s TED talk, which I wrote about here.

The entire post, titled “Skepticism and the Last Dogma,” is worth reading, as are the readers’ comments that follow. I think he makes an excellent point about the need for a “true” skepticism — one that guards against the arrogance of unwarranted certainty — but also seriously misapprehends Harris’s argument. Here are some of the salient points:

This is the kind of skeptic that Sam Harris is: he is skeptical of competing claims of truth and accuracy, but not of his own capacity to judge, nor of the human capacity to create intellectual structures that make that judging correct. Certainly, this is what the edifice of modern skepticism represents: a skepticism that first flatters the intellect of the skeptic in question, and the human mind in general.

I’ve always felt that the kind of skepticism that is most valuable, that is to our pragmatic benefit, is the skepticism that begins the skeptical enterprise at the human mind, the classical Greek skepticism that regarded any real certainty as dogmatism. Not because it is true, or even because it is superior, but because epistemological modesty seems to me to be an entirely under appreciated tool for the practical prosecution of our lives and our arguments. You can of course read a vast array of literature making this same point, from people far smarter and better argued than I am. You can read people like Sextus Empiricus, the Buddha, David Hume, George Berkeley, Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty…. Not because they are gurus who will point you towards truth, but because what they have to say may help you along your way.

For me, I would merely put it this way: that we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs that seem to be the products of evolution. And the belief (however you want to define a belief) in evolution makes the idea of those consciousness and sensory mechanism being capable, no matter how long the time scale, of perfectly or non-contingently ordering the universe around us seem quite low. Evolution does not produce perfectly fit systems, it only eliminates those systems so unfit that they prevent survival and the propagation of genetic material. A chimpanzee’s intellect is a near-miracle, capable of incredible things, but it will never understand calculus. I could never and would never say this with deductive certainty, but it seems likely to me that our consciousness has similar limitations.


All of history’s greatest villains were people who were certain. From Pol Pot to Hitler to Stalin to the Spanish Inquisition, the conquistadors, the progenitors of the Rwandan genocide, the Ku Klux Klan…. They all had it all figured out. […] What the world needs isn’t yet another muscular certainty that seeks to impose itself on all. What it needs is doubt, I think.


Among the few necessary social functions that religion performed, and that we now are lacking in a post-theistic world, is the enforcement of a certain humility. There is no god, but you and I are still dust, we always were.

First, here’s where I disagree. Continue reading

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