"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, October 26, 2014

If There Is No One To See My Messy Room, Does It Exist?

“Clean up your room”, Norbert Henks said to his son.

“If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to hear it, there is no sound”, replied his son, quoting Bishop Berkeley. “If the door to my messy room is closed, the mess ipso facto doesn’t exist.”

“Your room is there, is messy whether the door is open or closed, so goddamn it, go upstairs and clean it up!”

There was nothing worse than a snotty know-it-all kid, Norbert thought, and he had to end up with one.  The kid was always banging on about this concerto or that, Manet and Monet, Kant and Hobbes, but didn’t know shit from Shinola about family responsibility and above all respect for his parents.

Franco Henks, on the other hand, thought his father was a dunce, an ignoramus, and an intellectual troglodyte.  He wouldn’t know Bishop Berkeley or Jean Paul Sartre if they rose from the dead and bit him.

Father-son rivalry aside, Franco was actually quite serious about metaphysics, and he continued to ponder the imponderable through his university years.  How did one know, after all, if a thing existed or not? And it mattered to him. For him the tree-in-the-forest riddle was but one of many philosophical conundrums. “I think, therefore I am”, said Descartes; but that validated only one existence.  How could anyone be sure that that thinking was no more than imagining; or whether life itself was the dream of God or some alien intelligence from Alpha Centauri. Linguistic philosophers disagreed on whether there could be cognition without language; so for all intents and purposes if one didn’t think – like a lobotomized person with most of his brain removed – then did both the person and the world around him cease to exist?

Parmenides defined reality in two ways:  “The way of truth" where change is impossible, and existence is timeless, uniform, necessary, and unchanging; and "the way of opinion” which explains the world of appearances, in which one's sensory faculties lead to conceptions which are false and deceitful.  All well and good, thought Franco, but how do I know which is which?

If no one could agree on a sequence of supposedly factual events, then did they exist? Franco had read The Ring and the Book and The Alexandria Quartet, both of which postulated that there was no such thing as one reality, but many depending on the number of observers; and if everyone witnessing an event came to a different conclusion about it, did it happen at all?

Scientific studies challenged the traditional concept of memory.  Very little of what we remember, researchers now say, actually happened; and most memories are ‘fill-ins’, remembrances created by others.  Uncle Herbert told his story about Cousin Joe and the Chevy Impala so many times that it was now accepted as a fact by everyone in the Henks family.  In fact, Cousin Joe did not run over the family cat with his Impala, steal a neighbor’s identical Persian, and leave the squashed twin on the doorstep. It was not an Impala but a LeSabre, the cat was a Maine Coon not a Persian, and did not run over it but scared it so badly by throwing stale coffee on it that it jumped, screeched, and hightailed it for the hedges. Uncle Herbert hated cats so he made up the squashing part.

A close friend of Norbert Henks, a local family physician who made rounds at St. Mary’s Convalescent Home, told Franco about patients with advanced dementia who couldn’t remember what they had just done; and that they pestered the nursing staff to take them to the toilet even though they had just been.  “It is a mean trick that God is playing on us”, said the doctor.  Life for the demented is confined to the present.  They have no past and no future.  “How horrible that must be”. Of course, he said, smiling. “If you’re as badly demented as these patients, then you don’t know what’s what anyway, let alone the answer to existential questions.”

Dismissive as he was, the doctor had raised a frightening prospect.  If at eighty the synapses of your brain stopped firing in the usual way and wiring frayed, the chemical mix of the cerebral cortex became tepid and useless, and whatever energy the other parts of the brain used to generate dissipated into a feeble current, then you ceased to exist even though you still saw, heard, ate, and shat. If one’s existence were reduced to tiny, endlessly repeated fragments of the present – that is without the context of past experience to give salience and relevance, or the perspective of future hopes and expectations – then one’s life had no meaning; and without meaning it did not exist.

Vladimir Nabokov was a self-described memorist. He understood from a very early age that reality was not comprised of two elements as Parmenides had postulated, but three – past, present, and future.  Most people live in the present and in the future, but let past memories fade and slip away. At eighty, most of life is past, Nabokov, noted; so if there is any reality to living, it is in the past.  The present is evanescent, momentary, and insignificant.

He worked at fixing events in his memory, recalling them every day or every week so that he would never forget them.  He developed and used many mnemonic devices to aid his recollection; and as a result the experiences of his childhood in Czarist Russia were as real to him as those as an adult in America.  Nabokov, therefore, was more real than most people, more complete, more satisfied.  He anticipated the 21st century conclusions about the non-existence of actual memories; and felt that through deliberate, assiduous attempts to fix, recreate, and recreate again events of the present, he could neutralize the natural tendency to self-deception.

While all this made complete sense to Franco Henks, he was unable to restrict his speculations to the real of the intellectual and academic. For example, he would take a carrot out of the refrigerator, peel it, take a bite, and then place it on the kitchen table.  He went upstairs to his office, and forced himself to remember the shape, color, texture, and taste of the carrot.  When he was convinced that he had actually eaten a carrot, he returned to the kitchen, inspected the bite marks, smelled the distinctly acrid-sweet fragrance of the vegetable, and concluded that yes, he had eaten it.

But, he reflected, once the taste of carrot has gone from my mouth and the experience of eating it is but a memory; and if the door to the kitchen is permanently locked and the blinds on all the windows drawn in perpetuity, how do I know if I actually ate it?

He turned increasingly to the occult.  If it is possible to see into the future as is claimed by many, what does that mean? How can both future and present exist simultaneously.  Logic dictates that the unknown future becomes the reality of the present and is then consigned to the past.  Am I living in only a potential reality, marking time until the foreseen future comes to pass?

He attended séances to see if there was any truth to the belief that the dead never died but were reassembled as spirits which could be contacted.  In other words, once you died you had no more future or past, but only a present.  It was mind-boggling.

He read science fiction, especially one story called The Brain from Andromeda. Despite the hokey title, the story had a lot to it. It concerned an alien intelligence so advanced that it had evolved beyond space-time; and as it moved effortlessly through the infinitude of the universe, it perceived nothing except expressions of itself.  In other words, as it passed through our solar system, it noticed nothing, saw nothing, felt nothing.  The Earth, its humanity, and its rocks, rills, and mountains did not exist. Within the terms of reference of this pure intelligence there was no room for physical reality and therefore it did not exist. If this removed, distant, but super-intelligence passed this way without a flicker of recognition, did the Earth exist at all.

Franco remembered the old saw, “If an infinite number of monkeys typed for an infinite amount of time on an infinite number of typewriters, they would write the complete works of Shakespeare, all the great works of literature, and then some.”

If the universe were indeed infinite, then there was an infinite chance of an infinite replicas of Earth.  Not only that, there would be enough of these Earths so that at any given instant all beings on them were behaving in exactly the same way. Another Franco Henks opening a container of milk, biting a carrot, or fighting with his father.

“My head is spinning”, said Franco Henks, and he had not even graduated from college. Thanks to his superior record at St. Grottlesex and his unusually insightful essay (on metaphysics, of course), he earned early admission to Harvard; and because of his already advanced preparatory school studies, he was able to enroll in Senior-level courses during his Freshman year. By the end of Sophomore year he had read, understood, and written about every philosopher from Plato to Sartre.  He was more dismissive or at best circumspect about the Postmodernists, and gave them short shrift when considering his thesis.

However, far from being the productive and rewarding experience immersion in the Philosophy Department of Harvard should have been, constant exposure to the conflicting theories of being, reality, and nothingness simply further disoriented his already unbalanced mind.  Not only did he read about Hindu astral projection, but spent weekends in Queens with Indian sadhus who practiced an esoteric brand of karmic yoga.  He wanted to see if it was true that one’s soul could be temporarily removed from the body while the body still lived – two separate, distinct, but equally valid realities.  Sri Ramakrishna Rao was a charlatan, however, who bilked Franco Henks for all he was worth, and his financial debt was now threatening his tuition.

His grades suffered as he spent more extracurricular hours at observatories; and thanks to his father’s connections, managed a Spring Break in Puerto Rico at Arecibo. SETI – Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – was not science fiction, but scientific enterprise; and Franco wanted at least to be among the giant radio telescopes scanning the farthest reaches of the known universe.  There was no area of metaphysics (and as one can see, his definition expanded far beyond the traditional) he did not explore; and he was as at home with the Sufi dervishes in Pasadena and the Orthodox kabbalah Jews of the Lower East Side as he was with his St. Grottlesex friends at Mather House.

The story ends predictably enough.  Franco Henks around the age of 35 went completely around the bend, told psychiatrists that he lived in three parallel universes and experienced multiple realities. In his first weeks at St. Elizabeth’s before electroshock and advanced drug therapy, he could only stare at his food, never touching it.  He couldn’t decide if the bacon and eggs were real, he told the attending physician; and when urged to taste a bite and see from himself, he said that an unreal person living in a parallel universe could not eat eggs.

The electroshock, drug therapy, and the talking cure eventually allowed him to leave St. Elizabeth’s; but he had to work hard at accepting things as they were – i.e. conventional reality. He identified with the mathematician John Nash who was a serious schizophrenic and for his entire life, when visited by imaginary people, had to reject them as unreal and go on with his life.

The movie A Beautiful Mind, the story of John Nash, was consoling but also frightening. Nash saw imaginary friends who appeared to him as real as his colleagues. He knew that the imaginary friends were real; and he had to accept what psychiatrists had told him - ignore them. In Franco Henk’s recovering state, he was in the same boat.  He heard the psychiatrists counsel.  He told himself that there was only one reality; but he never really believed any of it.  And that was what finally drove him back to St. Elizabeth’s.

What finally pushed him over the edge was virtual reality.  If one’s mind could be linked to the computer, and live in a virtual world constructed out of the stuff of dreams and fantasies; and if this virtual world could be more perfect, satisfying, and rewarding as ‘the real thing’, then who was to say that virtuality didn’t trump reality. Henks could understand the physics of it all; but could not fathom the implications.  What if everyone were hooked up to one giant computer for life, interacting in a totally virtual world, engaging with avatars, remembered friends, and figures from history?  Would that reality replace the ‘real’ one outside – the empty streets, forests, and meadows of America which were now unused, useless, and uninteresting in comparison to the virtual world?

To this day Franco Henks resides at St. Elizabeths, even longer than John Hinkley who shot Reagan in 1981; and like Hinkley will never be released.  His father remembers the messy room episode and wondered if he had been too hard on the boy; but the staff at St. Elizabeth’s said that his schizophrenia was of the deeply genetic order.  Norbert Henks might have contributed some bits of mitochondria that contributed to the problem, but this disorder certainly came from a much more remote past.

“Probably from Great Grandfather Hercule”, Mrs. Henks said to her husband not at all unkindly. “We all knew that Herky had many screws loose.”

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