Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why am I Normal and Everyone Else Isn't?

Why am I normal and everyone else isn’t? Das ist hier die Frage. I don’t mean normal in a self-righteous sense; rather, I’m addressing our inability to climb outside our subjectivity. I know only me. I can make stabs at what people who are not me are thinking, but in the end it’s only educated guess work. I inevitably extrapolate my experience onto others so as to understand where they—namely seven billion strange hominids—are coming from. Unfortunately, I often don’t feel comfortable in my own skin, I suffer from bouts of self-doubt, and I’m susceptible to egocentrism. Whether I even understand myself and have a reliable compass from the get-go is an open question.

And for all I know, the world around me is nothing but an artificial mise-en-scène. Perhaps you, the trees, and my cats are merely stage props designed to keep the illusion of this world alive, only to disappear or be put on some shelf somewhere when the scene changes. Welcome to my solipsistic hell! I don’t want to retread this well-trod path; science fiction novels, songs, and movies—to wit, The Truman Show, The Matrix, and more recently Inception—have sufficiently mined that philosophical query for dramatic purposes. Descartes has plowed through these fields as well. (Ironically, his skepticism was an attempt to prove the reality of the world extra mentem.)

So much for my unoriginal Theory of Props! Let me now turn to Werner Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty (1927). I’m not a scientist. I know that surprises you, given my scientific treatises on vomiting and urinating. I like to apply the principle outside its context of quantum mechanics and use it as a metaphor for life. I’m of course not alone in doing so, to the chagrin of physicists. One of the implications of Heisenberg’s theory is that we cannot properly observe phenomenon because the process of observation gets in the way of that which we are observing. We have a built-in filter through which we see the world.  What we see is our perception of the world, not the world as such.  Being a person who believed until quite recently that little spider monkeys move the pistons that make a car engine work, I’m not the best authority on science and technology. How do they fit in there? Ain’t that something! So take my observations with a grain of salt.

With exceptions here and there, we all think that what we do, how we go about our day, is indeed the right way to go about things.  To be sure, we question ourselves and sometimes change our outlook over time.  We violate our own principles, but we our conscious that we are violating them. You might not think so, especially those of you who fancy yourselves an enlightened soul open to other perspectives, but we carry with us mental rulebooks—precepts and rules of engagement to conduct our lives.  We as individuals see our viewpoint as normal and look upon other viewpoinsts as myopic, strange, or unenlightened.  The only way we’ll ever connect with each other, I suppose, is to realize that we’re all in the same boat…or train. The German poet Erich Kästner gets the last word. In the first stanza of his Eisenbahngleichnis (Railway Metaphor), he writes:

Wir sitzen alle im gleichen Zug
und reisen quer durch die Zeit.
Wir sehen hinaus. Wir sahen genug.
Wir fahren alle im gleichen Zug
Und keiner weiß wie weit.

(My poor English translation)
We’re all sitting in the same train
And traveling through time.
We look out the window. We’ve seen enough.
We’re all riding on this same train
And nobody knows where it’s going.