More matter with less art

Do you ever wonder about, well, wondering? Like, what makes something suddenly appear in your mind, that starts you on an unanticipated trajectory of thought? I mean, where did it come from? And why does it sometimes seem as if it was there all along, just under the surface, before it briefly surfaced for air -like a whale, or whatever? And who controls if and when it surfaces? It surely can’t be the me I chum around with who seems so blissfully innocent until the package arrives. So then, who owns the actual agency -my me or a puppeteer homunculus that sits around inside? And, of course, which one of us would be answering that question? Who’s doing the thinking anyway? Who’s in command?

I realize the truth of the situation is likely being kept from me, and any answers that are available are heavily redacted. Still, I want to know if I am being manipulated and then blamed for the ensuing consequences. Perhaps it’s a bit late to ask, now that I’m retired and everything, but I’m wondering if he (I’m pretty sure of his gender after all these years) can be thought of as having retired as well -and if he is in the same state of listless decline and forgetfulness as me, his unwitting dogsbody.

It’s an interesting question, you have to admit. I’m sure it’s one that has been mulled like wine, for millennia now, but it re-occurred to me quite recently when I came across a rather lengthy essay by Thomas Metzinger, a professor of theoretical philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany in the online publication Aeon:

Metzinger, prefers dolphins to my whale analogy though, possibly because they are more playful and changeable than my subconscious whales- but nonetheless he’s onto something quite profound, I suspect. He even posits the possibility of more than one dolphin; I have never felt the need for more than one whale, I -or at least my inner homunculus- have to admit however.

Anyway, Metzinger uses the analogy as a springboard to talk about where I (we?) started: mind wandering -the spontaneous thoughts which my friends always refer to as my non sequiturs. ‘[O]ur conscious inner life seems to be about the management of spontaneously emerging mental behaviour. Most of what populates our awareness unfolds automatically… but it can still be guided to a greater or lesser degree.’ And yet it doesn’t stop there. We have to learn to cultivate a mental autonomy before this ‘wandering’ interferes with our ability to concentrate on, say, reading a book, listening to a conversation, or driving a car. It’s hard to concentrate on anything when a whale surfaces in your head, though -it takes up so much space.

Of course, it would be useful to learn how to tune it out: shove the whale back under the water for a while. But, you have to be Goldilockean about it: it only seems to work with a just-right, Baby Whale. And anyway, Metzinger thinks some spontaneous thoughts ‘play an important role in recovering from bad experiences, as well as in autobiographical planning, creative problem-solving, goal-directed thinking, and perhaps even in deeper forms of self-reflection. In fact, mind-wandering can often be seen as a process of emotional self-regulation.’ If only, eh?

Ahh, but as I read further -all the while fighting back random thoughts and visualizing what was in the fridge that I could grab quickly- I discovered that Metzinger doesn’t even believe in himself… Well, to be more accurate, a self. He confesses that he doesn’t ‘believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’. At best, we have an inner image or representation of ourselves as a whole, made up of many functional modules and layers… this self-model is based on an internal model of the body, including affective and emotional states, and grounded in inner-body perceptions such as gut feelings, heartbeat, breath, hunger or thirst. On another, higher layer, the self-model reflects a person’s relationships to other people, ethical and cultural norms, and sense of self-worth.’ Come on, eh? Can you imagine remembering that every morning while staring bleary-eyed at the mirror? Even if ‘the self-model fosters the illusion of transtemporal identity – the belief that we are a whole and persisting entity based on the narrative our brain tells itself about ‘our’ past, present and future’, I’d never get my teeth cleaned.

My mind even wanders at the thought. I think I’d rather go back to believing there’s a tiny homunculus at the controls in there. It’s rather too much to reduce everything that I’ve come to love about me to being something else -not even somebody else- something Metzinger calls a Self-Model, one of the main functions of which is that ‘it lets our biological organism predict, and thereby control, the sensory consequences of our actions.’ And that, by the way, is what gives me my sense of agency -or maybe it was gifted to my homunculus. It wasn’t clear.

Actually, I (we both?) got more and more confused as the essay unfolded. It became entirely too reductionist for the poet in me -or at least for whatever my homunculus lets me pretend I am. Sometimes, I have to wonder if this inner ‘he’ is merely a product of the culture to which we have both been exposed, or is there an intentionality? Is he, in other words, really the boss -the one I work for?

Can meditation or mindfulness rid me of him -or at least submerge my whale occasionally? Well, some of the more readable Metzinger seems to think so, albeit with qualifications. I don’t really understand much of his reasoning, but the part of me still above water wonders if he is hinting for me to ignore each dolphin, or whatever I keep in there, that surfaces in that early stage of meditation lest I find myself dragged beneath the waves along with it. Learn not to question each breach. Perhaps this neglect is what he meant by mental autonomy. He could have articulated it in less than 6100 words, though and used far less pleonasms -a word I decided to look up with my newly-acquire mental autonomy between successive whale sightings -the fridge was empty anyway.

Still, if Metzinger ever happens upon one of my blogs, I’d like to think he’d never suspect how much I skipped in his article. It was my homunculus that actually finished reading it.


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