Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

What life consists of (I)

Elbows and backs. Life is not about unity but multiplicity. The reign of quantity. That’s the ontology, basic inventory of the world. Monotheism and totalitarianism don’t hold any ground. Monotheistic theologians mourned the lost unity, and damned diversity and plurality that characterizes the human condition. ‘Negation of the Many and absorption into the One’. That’s what they wanted. ‘Descent from Essence (or forma) toward the pole of Substance (or materia). Essence is qualitative while substance is quantitative.’ That’s what they couldn’t stand. The very nature of human condition is what they couldn’t stand. I bet a lot of mystical theories are based on this sentiment.

And yet, centripetal forces keep driving the humankind forward. The strive for communication. Seeking to breach the gap between isolated entities, to erase the border, see a unity. Reflections of oneself in others, ropes and bridges, smoke in a twisted mirror. But what to do when one doesn’t have tools to breach it? Way too self-contained, absorbed, sealed, and slowly fermenting. Inexpressible, impenetrable. No tools to establish meaningful connection, no instruments to drill straight into that dark murky substance at the core, bring it to light. Someone’s unable to formulate two sentences in spoken words, while everyone else having fun in company. A ghost in a hermeneutically sealed room with perfect sound isolation. An artist without brush, a deaf piano player, a numb orator lifted to gallows. A fly with ripped out wings. The journey of those is a lonely journey. But the task is to find a way, a tool, a method…

Life is a cooled lava, a subvolcanic quartz, a petrified wood. And a constant search for forceps that could extract the pulp and fire out of these dead materials. The mental stuff that somehow emerges out of corporeal structures – is it always there, or does it come into being though the contact with some alchemic mixture? Random encounters, incidental conversations. The chemical compounds interacting and blending, producing a cloud of vapor, and a new emergent substance… No thoughts, no ideas, no feelings lie plainly on the surface. Those have to be grasped with claws, torn out of the flesh of time, snatched with a strong grip.

Life consists of facades. The grey stone tombs in the city of dead, except not completely dead. Its inhabitants sitting quietly in the darkness, sheltered from the crude environment. Watching collective hallucinations on screen. My whole life I was into facades. That’s all there is, I thought. If you’re good enough at imitating it, they would believe you. Ah no. Turned out there’s a transient stuff that permeates the stones and bricks and shapes they’re laid into. The very essence of education is a steady dive into what’s within. Life is a plunge into invisible machinery behind it all, the structure of covert relations that governs the physical world and doesn’t manifest itself visibly. Cities, societies, people. Supply chains do not reveal themselves to our eye. How about institutions? What about corporations? It’s far from obvious and far from easy to unveil the covert meshwork of things that bring any sort of entity to life.

* But maybe I’m not completely wrong at the end, given how much effort is put in our Internet-driven epoch into the maintenance of facades. I’ve always been entertained by the pure clean fun that bloggers seemingly have on their pictures vs shallowness of mundane reality revealed in their YouTube vlogs.

And even when the public domain is accessible upon applying a proper effort, the private realm remains an unapproachable fortress (the notorious criticism of Hannah Arendt: all the best human activities were shovelled away into this pathetic sphere of private). It remains a mystery what happens behind the windows of living rooms, lit up with warm electric light, observed from the dark coldness of the dusk. Which mental life is going on behind the facades of faces. It also runs on electricity, this mental stage of Cartesian theatre, eyes like electric spotlights… And there’s no way there’s no ghost in this shell. 

I wish everyone came with a plank showcasing an overview of the most important ideas contemplated by their owner, what beholds his imagination, the most profound and long-standing questions holding a grip on his mind. Books, theories, music. What animates and lights his soul from the within. But there’s no such a thing. So far, the Internet is better suited for finding any genuine connection than the actual physical world. The internet provides a direct access to the core directory. Everyone should have a blog. And a QR code printed on a sleeve.

Graphomania aside, that’s actually a workable case for a practical augmented reality: in 100 years, public anonymity will seem like a primitive archaism. Imagine: in 21st century all they could see were just physical bodies! They had no access to the souls! What if these guys on streets… what if they’re into philosophy and you can approach them directly, and there’s no need to organize obscure MeetUps?..

Overcoming multiplicity

Life lies somewhere in the gap between phenomenological perception and imperfect results of its transmission. The warm light. The embassy district. An old man shovelling fallen leaves, dust dancing in the mild autumnal sun. The perceived moments mean nothing at all unless transferred to some other media accessible to other minds. You cannot take your precious percepts with you to the afterlife.

The multiplicity of entities requires a shared medium of communication. The best of what we have are words. And even those are barely accurate. The language is just a formal system, a thin symbolic layer on top of meshwork of chaotic non-verbal processes, a vast pool of synaptic activities between neurons. ‘Our everyday language is a kind of theory about the world.’ A map, a model, a picture. Not all things have correspondents in words. In fact, the most influential things (abstract ideas, terms, concepts) are barely expressible in formal symbols because they don’t have objective referents. Ethics, aesthetics, religion, God, death, emotions. There’s a vast uncharted territory over there. Just as Wittgenstein postulated, deliberating about this stuff is virtually nonsensical. Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

An even weirded puzzle is that our own mental states, such as intentions, desires and beliefs, aren’t clearly transferable into words either. A big misconception is that there’s a straightforward link between subjective perception and the way for its verbal expression. However, as neuroscience shows, mental states correspond to a widely distributed neural activity in the brain, and what symbolic system has access to is just a vague consensus between neurons translated into formal symbols. It’s imprecise, inaccurate, and sometimes straightaway wrong. 

Putting things into words is the first challenge. The second one is transmitting them. As Bernard Werber wrote: ‘Between what I think, what I want to say, what I believe I say, what I say, what you want to hear, what you believe to hear, what you hear, what you want to understand, what you think you understand, what you understand…They are ten possibilities that we might have some problem communicating.‘ Indeed. I always suspected that interpersonal communications are largely based on interpolation: misheard words, mistaken meanings, faulty generalizations. In the end, the information loss is enormous, and the efficacy rate of transmission is far form optimal.

Are words even natural to humans? Spoken language could be, but writing and reading surely aren’t. Focused attention and sustained concentration is not what humans are naturally good at: we evolved in jungles full of danger where meditating on one idea for long was negatively correlated with one’s own survival. Speech was meant for gossiping and mindless chatter, and looking at people around – that’s what humankind is still very eager to do. Sustaining attention came at a large mental cost. Perhaps language, with its writing and reading, was just a transitory stage, at least some lousy way to transfer human experiences – until we come up with something better.

In the future, the humankind has a moral obligation to find a medium that transcends the limitation of formal language, perhaps to find a way to transmit non-verbal subjective  experiences directly into the minds of others. You’ll know exactly how I feel without a need to send you a cheesy song on social media. Perhaps the format of TikTok is already a step towards that vision. What if I want to portray an emotion for which there’s no word? An idea fermenting in a brain area too distributed to form any linguistic coherence. Perhaps that’s what poetry was invented for. A medium that extends the language. Fine-tuning your percepts – will it be considered the highest form of art? William Gibson has already speculated about such future in his ‘Winter market’.

Just as Wittgenstein postulated, art, poetry, fiction literature, music – all that surpasses the mere referential function of the language. Everyday speech is like pictures. Poems refer to complex multi-layered emotions coming from distributed activity of neurons somewhere in ganglia. Ethical statements come from same region too. When someone says that ‘killing people is bad’, he doesn’t truly speak – he portrays his emotions on the topic. Ethics, beauty, God and other inexpressible things definitely exist – they’re just not part of the external world, but someone’s attitude to it. Death is one of them too. One day we’ll find a medium to express it.

Life consists of multitudes. Of wonderfully odd pluralities. Erasing them in a conforming mass is a crime against humanity, an antithesis of life itself. To be meaningful, things ought to breach gaps between multiplicities, connecting dispersed pluralities. But symbols have limits. The ways of non-symbolic communication have so far been explored by such spheres as art, but the task for the future is to solve this challenging problem by the superior tools and mechanisms given to us by the bright domain of science.

I write about cats and theories. About the blog »