The problem with using words to describe non-dualism is that they just don’t cut it. Experience is the key. So I’ve put down some fun games below – games that will help you see for yourself how you identify the different elements of the world.
The Wrist Game
Get some friends together, and give each one a ballpoint pen or two rubber bands. Utter the following:
“You all know what a wrist is, right?”
Most people will probably say that they do.
“Okay, let’s all put marks (or rubber bands) on either end of our wrist – where it begins, and where it ends.”
Predictably, no one will have precisely the same delineations for where a wrist starts and where it ends. That’s because no one really knows. Is it just the measure from the end of the radius and ulna to the beginning of the metacarpals? Or does it, as many think, extend up further, so that one can wear, say, thirty bracelets on their wrist?
We’re quite sure we know what many things are, but when we try to observe the lines, we find that we actually don’t really have much of an idea at all. This is because most of our symbolic representations of the world are pretty shabby. You can play this game with your ankle or with the division between two mountains. As you get more adept at it, you can actually play it with any object in the world.
Tree Drawing Game
Hand out a piece of paper and a writing utensil to your friends. Have each one draw a picture of a tree. Give no other instructions (and you might want to set a time limit to it – a minute or so should do). Then compare pictures.
Many people will choose to draw only a trunk and branches, along with, perhaps, some leaves. The roots of the tree, interestingly enough, will usually be missing. Why? Because as visual creatures, we begin to create visual symbolic references in the world around us, and ignore the total picture.
Consider what a really complete picture of a tree would look like. Would it include the ground? Rain or sunshine? The insects or animals that help the tree to reproduce? Should we include other trees? The earth herself? Our solar system? Just how do we define a ‘thing’? Do we include the things it needs to exist? Or just its basic shape?
Finally, if indeed your friends didn’t draw roots, what does that mean about our usual psychology? Does it matter if we have a generally incomplete view of the world?
Take a look at the example outlined in A Car Called Rocket, and adapt it so that you can guide your friends through the process. See what their conclusions are.
Now take the ‘Car Called Rocket’ example and adapt it to human beings. Here’s how it might work–
Imagine that you’ve gotten into a bad buzz saw accident, and mangled your left hand. You go in to the doc and she says “Sorry, bud, but we’re going to have to lop it off.” She does so, and replaces it with a state-of-the art robotic hand.
Here’s the big question. Are you still you?
Three weeks later you’re downhill ice skating when you get into an accident with three other skaters. In the ensuing tangle, both your legs get chopped off. At the hospital they replace them with two artificial legs.
Here’s that question again. Are you still you?
Next year you’re competing in a jelly-bean eating contest, and the sugar overload triggers a heart attack. They rush you to the hospital, and have no choice but to give you an artificial heart.
Are you still you?
Keep replacing parts. At what point do you cease to become yourself?
Many people from our culture will begin having the most trouble when it comes to the head. Replacing the face, for instance, is difficult for some people. And the most difficult part? Usually the brain. If you get brain cancer, and the doctors say they can just replace your brain with this computerized one, after they download your brain contents into the directory . . . well, we don’t feel so sure that we’d actually be there after the download.
Of course, it gets even more interesting if you consider the following question. What if a tiny portion of your brain – say 2% — was diseased, and they were going to replace only that portion with a computerized replacement. Most of us have no trouble saying we’d still be ourselves.
Now replace another 2% each year – for the next 50 years. At what point do you think you’d stop being you? Most of us find it curiously easier to think that we’d retain our ‘self’ if we do the replacement slowly, rather than quickly. (Much like the Rocket example).
For this final game, consider the following scenario. Scientists have just unveiled a teleportation machine. The days of tedious jet flight are over! Now you can go to Acapulco for only $20, and it takes you only .000673 seconds to make the trip. Cool!
Are you ready to go? Here’s how it works. You step into the teleportation machine – go ahead and bring your luggage, since it will all be teleported with you.
Great. Now just stand there for a moment as the Atomic Positioning Meter reads the relative position of every atom in your body. Good. Okay . . .
“Stand by for atomization.”
“What’s wrong, customer?”
“Yes, we vaporize your body now.”
“Vaporize my body?”
“That’s correct. May we commence?”
Your call. The idea is that they will vaporize your body, and reconstruct ‘you’ in Acapulco. Here’s the question. Will ‘you’ arrive?
Your answer to this question will reveal quite clearly whether or not you believe in a ‘self’.
Here are some questions to consider:
Maybe you’d like to see a demonstration first. They send Fred, the maintenance guy, to Acapulco, and then teleport him back. He’s brought a coconut.
Would there be any way to tell whether Fred’s ‘original self’ was still here? The reconstruction talks, acts, and seems just like Fred. He has Fred’s memories. But is he Fred? Is ‘Fred’ seeing out through those eyes, or have we simply succeeded in creating a perfect reproduction? The truth is that there would be absolutely no way to tell.
What about this? Couldn’t they just take the reading with the Atomic Positioning Meter and then send you down without vaporizing your body? Think of the mess this would create! Now there would be two ‘yous’. Would you see through both pairs of eyes? Would you be experiencing two simultaneous realities? Or would you remain in your original body?
Just what is it we think would be transferred or not transferred? What is the ‘self’ or ‘me’ that I fear not might make it to Acapulco?
These games all ask similar questions – they confront our ideas of identity. The more we examine such ideas, the more we’ll find that we really have no idea what the ‘things’ of the world are – including ourselves! All we do is hastily throw some symbols around the most obvious boundaries we can sense (usually a visual boundary, rather than a tactile one – consider what we think of as flame – is it the visual brightness, or the heat itself? This has nothing to do with what ‘flame’ is, and everything to do with our bias toward visual definitions), and then we pretend that we know what ‘reality’ is. It doesn’t take much to notice that this is ‘certifiable insanity’, especially if we define craziness as being ‘out of touch with reality’.
Luckily we all adhere to the same general craziness, and thus we can pretend we’re all perfectly sane. Of course, as soon as we disagree on our imagined definitions, we begin to kill each other in wars and race riots, so maybe it’s something we should pay a bit of attention to after all . . .