If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
If Dar feels something and no one can understand him, do his emotions count?
Supposedly, the tree-falling-in-forest question was first posed in 1710 by George Berkeley, the philosopher who was the inspiration for the name of Berkeley, California. I think this may amuse my friends who are from (or know) Berkeley – that our hometown’s foundation may well have been directly related to metaphysical questions about perception and reality.
I find myself thinking about these questions this morning as I sit with Dar. The therapist called in sick today, and we have to find ways to amuse ourselves. What is Dar doing? “Tee-tee-tee”-ing in the backyard, occasionally crying out from what may be some phantom pain. What am I doing? Searching the internet and occasionally suppressing some phantom pain. Part of mine is getting older – where do those random aches come from anyway? – and part of it is wondering about Dar’s condition.
Albert Einstein supposedly asked Niels Bohr if the moon really exists when no one is looking at it. I guess it’s the same issue. Do Dar’s feelings count if he can’t express them? They do and they don’t.
What is Dar’s self, and will I ever know it? Metaphysicists are divided on this question even in the case of neurotypical people. Bundle theory holds that things are only and exactly what we perceive out of them. An apple is only what it looks like, how it sounds when you eat it, what it weighs, how it tastes…nothing else. Substance theory, however, suggests that we have selves beyond what properties we display. Some call this having a soul. One might consider this a more religious outlook than bundle theory, but it arguably fits with atheistic existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialist extraordinaire, believed that most things had an essence that preceded their existence – they were conceived, then created, giving them a purpose. His pessimistic outlook on humans was based on us having an existence without an essence – we don’t know our purpose in life.
What is Dar’s purpose in life? On the one hand, this question may be considered inexplicable for everyone; on the other hand, I feel more urgency in his case, partly because it’s not easy to default to trying to make him happy.
Shortly after Thomas Jefferson wrote those world-altering words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Jeremy Bentham expanded the final point into a philosophy we now call utilitarianism – the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. In historical terms, it’s strange to think how recent such an outlook is. Personally, my populism is deeply grounded in my utilitarianism. And I believe that American internet culture, with its flame wars and clickbait about prejudice and #gamergate and changes at Reddit and Gawker, leans closer to utilitarianism than it does any other philosophy.
But that doesn’t mean I can use it to explain or help Dar. I don’t know that Dar will ever be on the internet. I kind of loved this, ICYMI. As Pamela Druckerman there says, as recently as the 1990s, how could we really know if anyone was like us? Now we know…more than we then thought possible. And yes, Druckerman expresses concern about solipsism, but she sees the benefits in human empathy.
Where’s Dar’s empathy? For us and from us? I know we feel sympathy for him, but it’s hard to feel true deep genuine resonance with his outlook on the world when we have no idea what it is. To paraphrase Druckerman, we see Dar the way Virginia Woolf saw most people.
I hate not knowing more about my own son. I live with a 5-year-old stranger. It’s like the feeling of being a new step-parent…all the time. What does this kid really think of me? What does he really want out of us, out of life? What can I do for him that he actually wants done?
Whether or not things exist without being perceived, we still have to ask if the unobserved world functions the same as the observed world. I’m amazed how many fans of Breaking Bad don’t know the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – that to observe something is to change it. As with substance theory, one can look at this idea as inherently narcissistic – oh, I’m just so great, I affect everything I touch – or inherently depressing – oh, I can’t see anything without ruining it! Am I affecting Dar? Am I ruining him? Is he affecting me? Is he ruining me? None of these are entirely clear.
With Dar’s brother, who’s barely half his age, the philosophy of WYSIWYG feels much closer – what you see is what you get. Bundle theory works with him. With Dar, who knows what dimensions he’s traveling through?
Hindu texts have the drishti-srishti-vada theory which says that the universe doesn’t exist outside of what we see. And there’s a famous Buddhist anecdote, associated with Hui-neng who founded Zen Buddhism.
Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, “The flag moves.” The other said, “The wind moves.” They argued back and forth but could not agree.
The Sixth Ancestor said, “Gentlemen! It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves.” The two monks were struck with awe.
Dar’s mind moves, all right, but I have no idea if it moves like mine. I doubt it. When I think of how much harder (than most people) Dar must work just to create reality…it’s staggering! And there’s his reality, and here’s mine, and we drift past each other, like the two people on the staircase near the top of M.C. Escher’s famous image.
Escher, Berkeley, Sartre, Bentham, Woolf, and Hui-neng are great. But I want a break from these questions. I want a relationship with Dar that would push those questions into the background: easy, reciprocal love full of interactive discussions, where I can give him whatever he says he wants and comfort him through whatever fears he expresses. Like I have with his brother.
I want to shake that Escher staircase until we’re both on the same reality plane. Or I want to enter his plane. And I want someone to tell me which one is going to happen first.