Sunday, August 14, 2011

Temple Guard

- There's a line in the middle of the street. If you go off the line on one side, you get caught in traffic. If you go off the line on the other side, you get caught in the cars going the other way. It's best also to stay on God's line, stick to the rules, not loosely, and not over strictly, but exactly as they are written.


The temple guard demonstrates his idea, drawing an imaginary line separating the courtyard where we stand from the steps down to the street. Young orthodox Jews from Persia attend respectfully to his words.


I too am listening carefully. I agree, I think. On one side, going one way, we exercise an intuitive emotional reliance on what works to get us what we love. On the other side, going the other way, there is a science of relation between things we use deliberately to work out what we should do. Both ways, both sides are part of our lives. We move forward between them, surrounded by the motion of both. We are not the things we do, but what wants to do them. We don't show favoritism, step off the line, give ourselves over to the territory of one side, because our goal is what Plato called loving the good. Our goal is perfecting a relation to the world.


At the cafe an hour earlier a graduate student of philosophy had told me that animals don't have consciousness. Only we do. Science has identified the physical bases of the unconscious, and can study the relation between the conscious and unconscious. My reply:


-Yes, I know. We are machines subject to forces. They make us do what we do. If we betray our friends or lovers or family we can't help ourselves, the forces that made us keep our faith have been diverted into other channels. It is for our health, proper functioning that we are what used to be called dishonest, dishonorable, unfaithful.


- And you don't believe that.


- Of course not.


I went on:


- The unconscious as a place of "forces" setting the machine of thought in motion is a theory, and not a likely one. We have no good reason to say we can't organize our experiences before we give them names. Unconscious thought is less organized, less in our moment-to-moment control, than conscious thought. We have experiences, organize them, act on them with and without words, doubles of those experiences made from language. Experience arises already in a form we can use to put one thing in relation to another. Both kinds of thought, named and unnamed, have their place, both are always with us, neither should be allowed to discount the other, each has its season. The line of a good life passes with them on both sides.


The student demanded:


- How do you know that?
- Have you ever had a dog?
- Yes. We humanize animals, assigning them our own feelings which they don't have.
- About a year ago I took care of a two month old puppy. One day I was in the kitchen, he was outside in the yard. He wanted to come to me. To do that, he had to climb a dozen or so steps leading up to the living room from the yard, pass through to the hall, and from the hall to the kitchen. He had just learned how to climb stairs the day before. But a minute later he had found me in the kitchen.


He had memories of the different rooms, and a habit of acting, investigating, trying to get someplace and something he wanted. Consciousness, without language. Ideas organized, but not doubled in words. Not forces but emotion, ideas and body moving together.


- What is your point?
- You believe unconscious thought operates like a machine without our control, as opposed to conscious thought, which is a machine we can to some degree control, and the relation between the two machines we can also to some degree control but also is determined by mechanical principles. Boxes within boxes, mechanism within mechanism, the whole going on without meaning except the efficient functioning of the mechanism.
- There is also free will. Quantum mechanics proves it.
- Free will trapped within the limits of probability. A meaningless shuttling back and forth around the same point.
- This conversation is useless.
- To a man making himself into a machine. Highly inefficient.


The student gets up and leaves. The temple guard says:


- He couldn't use his ideas to describe the conversation with you.
- Can I steal that idea?
- It's a gift.