Is Life a Dream?
Let’s discover the psychotic, delusional, trance-like state that we call life and experience
This article will go into some depth on two crucial subjects that most are unfamiliar with. They will be presented in a way that you can integrate them into your present perspective and finally, this article will conclude with what I hope you will also realize on your own, by the time you’ve reached that point.
To begin, a short story:
When I was a child, I visited a place that had sand dunes. I distinctly recall throwing a penny into the sand.
What I witnessed was, to say the least, quite underwhelming. The penny might have bounced slightly as the kinetically energized grains of sand displaced, ejecting a few millimeters around and above the rapidly decelerating penny.
That can be a funny thing, though, a penny cratering the sand.
You see, when you throw a penny into the sand, there are a vast, many things that happen. To be a bit more accurate, there is an incomprehensible array of simultaneous events, albethey almost entirely imperceptible.
It’s not just the grains of sand bursting outward or the penny descending into the vacuum of ejecting grains.
Were my eyes far more capable and my capacity for knowledge, far greater, perhaps instead of mere sand and a penny, there would have been ripples in an ocean of subatomic fields where all meaning ceases to exist including all sense or conceptualization of self. There was a singular, simultaneous moment of such complexity before me, had I been able to grasp it, perhaps I would not be here today. I can only imagine all “things” would have ceased to exist and I would have been vaporized, subatomically particulated at the realization of inseparability and oneness. No doubt, I would have realized my own non-existence and so, ceased to exist.
But I digress.
There was a penny and many grains of sand and yet, these were merely my functional approximation of a great many atoms and yet, what are atoms, but an approximation of subatomic particles? And so, what happened was truly of a depth and complexity worthy of utter bewilderment, a lifetime worth of detail.
Many things happen, interactions between things that are not actually “things”, but rather the emergent quality of smaller interacting “things” that, yet again, are truly just the quality of yet smaller, synergistically interactive sub-components. More “things”.
“Each level of biological organization builds upon the previous level, and is more complex. Moving up the hierarchy, each level acquires new emergent properties that are determined by the interactions between the individual parts. When cells are broken down into bits of membrane and liquids, these parts themselves cannot carry out the business of living. For example, you can take apart a lump of coal, rearrange the pieces in any order, and still have a lump of coal with the same function as the original one. But, if you slice apart a living plant and rearrange the pieces, the plant is no longer functional as a complete plant, because it depends on the exact order of those pieces. In the living world, the whole is indeed more than the sum of its parts. The emergent properties created by the interactions between levels of biological organization are new, unique characteristics. These properties are governed by the laws of chemistry and physics”.
— Sylvia S. Mader, Biology (10th ed., 2010), Ch. 1. A View of Life
You see, if you zoom in on your own body with enough magnification, it doesn’t take much before “you” disappear. You can try it for yourself or you can take my word for it, you won’t find yourself or a bunch of little “yous” under a microscopic view of your hand.
You’ll find some dirt and maybe some scary looking things at first, as you witness what appears to be a vaguely translucent, epidermal landscape of canyons and crags, but you’ll eventually arrive at cells. There is no “you” to be found in the cells and what happens when you zoom further? Do you find that the cells are made of smaller “cell stuff”? No, you’ll find the cells are in fact not made of anything resembling or behaving like a cell. You see, “you” and indeed, all “things” are your approximation of the details and this quite clearly demonstrates the qualitatively approximated nature of at least our experience, if not objective reality.
Our ignorance is well represented by this perception of non-fundamental “things”. Ignorance is a key-stone quality of what we know to be experience. Not just politics and economics, you see?
It’s no wonder it’s so difficult to reconcile or unify the fundamental world of the very small with our macro experience. Our world is nowhere to be found in the very small, of which it is composed.
Okay, I think you get the emergence thing, so let’s apply that in a way that is more profound:
You can just imagine the human brain. Were you to randomly reorganize the neurons of the brain, do you expect there will still be an experience going on in there?
Of course not and in fact, it turns out that you don’t even need to rearrange them, you can simply rearrange the firing order, so to speak. In an episode of RadioLab, the hosts join author Carl Zimmer on an exploration of what actually happens when the brain is anesthetized. While there certainly remains some mystery and there are multiple types of anesthesia, in this case, what is observed is more or less, a simple alteration of brain waves. That is, the mere interaction of neurons being altered is all it takes to cease experience and awareness.
This is the fundamental nature of emergence which is one way of describing what you are, what culture is, ant colonies and of course, procedurally generated reality.
In other words, it isn’t simply the proximity or some spacial relationship between components that makes them synergistic (giving rise to an output that is qualitatively greater than the sum of it’s parts), but the actual relationship it’s self. Changing the relationship perhaps by changing the behavior or characteristics of these parts, will change the interaction, so that it could be that they destroy or repel each other, for example.
The organization or interaction between units or components that gives rise to new, novel qualities, greater than their sum and which are not exhibited by the original components, is what we can know, for now, to be the one true fundamental of reality as we know it or as it is contained within this experience.
An atom doesn’t truly exist beyond the mere emergent quality or behavior of a particular arrangement of particular particles. Any “thing” is only ever many smaller “things” interacting and because of that, we can see that there is literally no substance, at all, to the reality that we experience.
And so it is, the very nature of your experience of physical reality and it’s events is truly complex vaporware. It’s literally a whole lot of talk, but no substance, at all. An algorithmic, procedurally generated bunch of physical objects, exhibiting irreducible qualities and behaviors.
Now, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Does emergence describe the actual fundamental nature? Does it describe the process by which reality is procedurally generated, regardless of our experience? Or is it in fact contained entirely within our experience, these tiers of organization? Is the continuous discovery of sequentially smaller units of organization, more or less the nature of our experience just trying trying to express it’s self by fabricating approximations, every step of the way down?
But damn it all. We just can’t do it. We can’t stay with it. The frame refreshes and all that remains are our grains of sand and coin; Convenient, functional, qualitative approximations. And so it goes. The shackles of our experience. Just a dumb coin splashing into dumb sand and here I am once again, momentarily present in this brief frame. The exact opposite of dissolved into an infinite ocean of complexity.
Each tiny thing that you do is an opportunity to become so lost in an infinitely complex, singular event, that all meaning and self are totally lost, but we are stuck in this frame-rate mode of experience. Each moment conveniently and I suppose necessarily, approximated into slides within a persistent series of slides.
So, remember, this is an article about you being in a trance and state of bondage.
What I’ve meant to illustrate above is that you experience only what you are allowed to experience. You are bound to, confined to, shackled to an area of awareness and otherwise ignorant to everything else.
These shackles are a little more elaborate than that, though. Not only are we imprisoned by ignorance, but we are programmed to be distracted.
“The absolute tranquility is the present moment. Though it is at this moment, there is no limit to this moment, and herein is eternal delight” — Hui-neng
The past and future are abstractions of present information, only. That’s a fairly straight-forward statement, but it’s also a pretty loaded statement. Let’s take a moment to unpack some of what is encompassed by that fact.
- Your memories are now
- Your pictures are now
- Your expectations are now
- All causality is an extrapolation of present information, now
- Vast galaxies too far away to comprehend, exist now.
Perhaps, it’s worth taking a moment to try and think of some thing that somehow exhibits the quality of being past or future. It shouldn’t be too difficult to realize that such a thing doesn’t exist. Only now exists and herein, all the information with which you fabricate imaginary times, places and extrapolated causality.
We should also acknowledge how inaccurate these abstractions are, let alone how inconsistent they are from one person to the next and in doing so, we can then begin to regard them as what they are; imaginary.
I do realize that for all of us, it is almost impossible to practically integrate this information and actually totally eliminate the persistent distraction of past and future and that’s okay. I mean, we all do it, this messy blurring of present experience and temporal extrapolation.
Really, who are we to judge the merits of these instrumental qualities, prescribed by the great sorting algorithm of nature? We extrapolate causality to a functional degree. No doubt, this ability, evolutionarily predates our capacity to reflect on it.
So, we shouldn’t view this as good or bad, right or wrong. We’ll get to the subject of reconciling this dichotomy and perhaps awakening to a point that a true choice can be made, but first, the nature of the present must be clarified.
The present isn’t a frame within a series of frames as we seem to often think of it. To put it bluntly, that’s just the nature of sensory experience and a misguided consensus on how to conceptualize the present. What nearly everyone thinks or imagines when the subject of “present” comes up, is that there was a then, there’s a right now and there’s about to be another now. A series of frames.
It’s funny that we do that, too. I mean, how long is a moment, actually? We just kind of let that one go, don’t we? The “moment” is such a universal currency in the global economy of phraseology. It’s literally the most vague unit possible and yet, it might be the most important quantification there is.
So, if the moment isn’t a snap shot or a single frame in time, what is it and how do we realize it?
We like to measure time and that creates a misperception that time is a divisible unit of reality. Perhaps, another way to look at it is that our concept of time is presupposed and so, we go on trying to reconcile it’s paradoxes.
If you simply abandon the concept of time, especially clocks, all together, there becomes much more room to realize a present that is constantly changing.
Now that some of the basics have been covered, it’s at this point that we move on from the nature of our experience and the reality therein. Let’s begin to address the more apparent components of our trance.
Allow me to introduce you to a wonderful character. Her name is Sara and she is the type of person who savors the simple joys in life.
There is a magazine that Sara has always loved. Let’s call it Illogical Concept.
Illogical Concept is quite expensive as far as magazines go and Sara is very frugal with her money. Illogical Concept has all kinds of interactive pages, quizzes, coupons and whatever else it is that makes a magazine be expensive. Sara is always so happy when she has extra money to acquire an issue. Well, that is, she was…
Recently, she has gained free access to all of the issues of Illogical Concept, online. To her surprise and guttural disappointment, this has left her feeling empty. Sad, even.
She no longer has the incentivized ritual of skipping to some parts and then going back to thoroughly savor all the rest. She is free to read any issue at any time and consequently, not only is it no longer special, but she has indeed lost one of the precious, small joys in her life.
So, what made it so special to begin with?
Well, I’m delighted to propose that it never was special. Rather, it is hers and indeed all of our sort of “programming” to desire the most difficult fruit and this is a very important thing to consider as we continue to analyze and reveal the underlying programming that dictates virtually every decision we make.
We wish we could have all the pleasure, all the money, don’t we? But deep down, I think we all know that doesn’t bring happiness or an end to suffering. If you don’t realize that now, may you remain ever hopeful.
I submit to you that “having it all” can have quite the opposite effect.
Of course, dear reader, you may have realized by this point that I’m going to say that a life without struggle is empty and meaningless. To a large degree, that is technically true. This is something we can know intuitively if not at least realized by some analysis of our own behavior patterns.
However, this fulfillment and search for meaning may just as well be a carrot dangling just out of reach from a securely mounted pole, just atop your head. As you will see, it may even be more accurate to describe this subject as fear and desire, the two core components that drive us in all endeavors.
Well, let’s begin with what happens when we “have it all”.
I think I’m right in saying that most people would consider “rich and famous” to be the ultimate achievement. Yet, the rich and famous can be so tortured that they decide to end their lives. And seemingly for no other reason than they were depressed, unhappy, suffering. But why? How can such a tradgedy be?
I want to add all due respect to the families who’ve had to endure the pain and suffering of suicide and in reality, the nuance and complexity of those situations is not addressed in the previous paragraph. My heart and deepest sympathy goes to you.
Well, we can easily find many relatable examples. Perhaps the stay at home spouse who, compared to the varying spectrum of what a suffering life can look like, might appear to be in heaven to some, but is in fact very unhappy. At least from the perspective of say a father in a 3rd world country who is unable to feed his family, let alone himself. To that father, the quintessential, Western housewife lives a life of unimaginable comfort.
And yet, the stay at home spouse can become such an incredibly depressed individual. As can the spouse who works long hours to provide for the family. Indeed, the poorest man on Earth can know the absolute greatest joy possible. Nobody is happier than the lost soul discovering a desert oasis. It’s just water. The most abundant compound in the universe. Many of us go potty into it and flush it away.
From our punishment, becomes the reward of love and gratitude, therein.
And with this, you can begin to see that suffering, pleasure and desire are things that never cease and no matter our material circumstance, we all feel the same suffering and drive to seek pleasure. This is a persistent, inescapable component of participatory life.
We can see what happens when people have it too easy. They start finding ridiculous things about which to complain and otherwise become upset. They turn into “Karens” that get incredibly upset that the fast-food isn’t fast enough. The 1% of the world will want the heads of their own 1% for having more. Never mind the others who’ve no access to banking, running water, democracy, equality.
Meanwhile, a child growing up very poor in a small village, is as happy as anyone could ever feel, simply to have a friend or eat fresh, juicy meat.
Let’s take a moment and pause on what’s really being observed, here.
No matter what we have, having is never really enough. Getting is a trap. What’s true is that the insatiable desire for pleasure, drives us. Fear of suffering, drives us. But these integral components don’t drive us toward anything that can actually be acquired or achieved. Pleasure can never last or simply be acquired. Suffering and death are inevitable. Fear is a whip. Pleasure is bait, you see?
It need not be bound to any particular context, this fear evasion and pleasure seeking that guides us towards and through struggle to some ineffable end. It is simply a universally applicable formula, a set of parameters, that control the behavioral nature of perhaps all living things and the broader systems they give rise to such as culture, philosophy or ecosystems and migratory patterns. These parameters are foundational of algorithmic life.
I want you to realize, dear reader, that we are really driven to struggle by this pursuit for pleasure, comfort, happiness and if the desire isn’t strong enough, we have fear; the fear of death, the fear of suffering to chase us, herding us in the obscured direction.
So, why? Why is our behavior so closely guided by these parameters? And what exactly is the direction we are meant to be going? Where are we meant to carry these burdens?
We can start with the obvious fact that whatever it is we are working towards or where we are going, what we are creating, is not at all something we decided on and certainly not something under anyone’s control. We are talking millions of years, so far and the average life-span of a modern human since our emergence is what? Like, 35–40 years? Not to mention modern humans have hardly been around for long.
It appears quite obvious that our inability to deviate from these parameters, brings forth some strong suspicions of the whole free will concept. The fundamental reasons for our behavior and participation, these driving forces of pleasure and suffering, are not by our own choosing or design. These are forces that direct us towards the will of life; to make there be more life, to grow in complexity. To what end, let’s hope this article is a good starting place.
You might even say that being alive is more akin to being a slave to the will of life, to the prime directives of functional, synergistically interactive existence.
Virtually all of us, no matter what life is like, where we are born, what cultures and religions we are surrounded by, will automatically begin to assimilate and go on expressing a life fully committed to participation, carrying the torch of those before us. We perpetuate the culture, we build the buildings, we go to work, pay taxes, buy the cars and flat screens and we become oppressed and we become anxious and angry and we revolt and so, we are cogs in a very large, very complex machine that we call life. Well, the human component of life, anyway.
Of course, an ant colony is a not-so-coincidental comparison of this nature of ours. At this moment, every ant colony is entirely unique. Every ant is entirely unique as is what it is presently doing and everything it’s surrounded by. Yet, every ant is doing almost precisely the same thing.
Despite all of us being unique, special individuals, we all behave within this very narrow spectrum, don’t we? In fact, if someone were to behave too differently, they would most likely be considered broken, dysfunctional. Perhaps they would even need to be kept away from society. And isn’t it funny how societies behave just like organisms with an immune response system? That’s for another article, though.
We all seem to want the same thing and regardless of how trapped and depressed we can feel, we will get jobs, go to work, borrow money, buy things, reproduce, all behaviors driven by fear and desire. We want the beautiful house, the nice car, the soul-mate, the family, whatever success looks like in our time and place. We simply do whatever we believe will bring us pleasure and uplift us from the bondage of life and it’s suffering and yet, even when some of us actually succeed, there is no freedom from the very same suffering. It’s a scam and it’s quite shocking how difficult it is to choose not to participate, despite possessing the knowledge that there is no finish line, no point that the work is complete.
It is virtually impossible for almost all of us to take a step back, admit that the life we’ve created was not by our design and simply walk away, give up, even. Trances aren’t easy to snap out of, particularly when they are such a state of psychosis and delusion. If we were all to suddenly awaken and realize the silliness of our entire lives and most importantly, realize that we are slaving towards bait on a string that we will never capture, the species would have no drive to go forward.
And what was the point of that? The point of desire and fear, pleasure and suffering, all of which is not of our choosing?
Here’s the thing, the thing I want you to get: The difficulty you face in becoming totally, presently aware, is not only due to sensory and comprehension limitations, it is also due to the virtually immutable prime directives of all life forms. That is: survive, interact, reproduce and guided by desire and fear.
Pleasure and suffering are merely mediums of exchange, feedback from your actions, meant to guide you and keep you involuntarily focused on the prime directives of which we are clearly not meant to need to understand.
The dream state reveals a lot about the nature of finite awareness and comprehension, specifically that there is always a level of psychosis and delusion. When we are riding a weaponized unicorn into space, we may feel a sense of wonder, but we just accept it and go with it. We simply haven’t the capacity available within our dreams, to question what is happening, let alone the capacity to truly know and comprehend it. It’s not until we awake, that we can reflect on and gauge the psychosis and delusion of the experience and our interaction within.
We humans have evolved to detect and intuitively interact within a qualitatively approximated spectrum of emergent macro organization such as ecosystems, economics, culture, weather, terrain, entropy, time, etc. You interact with organisms, not cells, you can sense the wind, not the molecules. Consequently, we’ve no functional need to intuit or interact outside of this little bandwidth within the broader spectrum of sets or tiers of physical organization that we approximate.
We’ve no further awakened perspective from which to gauge the psychosis and delusion of our present experience and behavior. Were we to be able to wake up even more, I am sure we would reflect on this as a dream and feel shock or even laugh upon reflection of what we saw, felt and did.
I believe there can be and probably are others who can look me in the eye and laugh with me because we both know that we both realize this moment and how bizarre it is and we realize that not only are we one thing, but this entire experience is some kind of bizarre, procedurally generated simulation in which we are all entranced.
I want us to look each other in the eye and simultaneously share a reciprocal “dude, WTF?” and “I know, right!?”, all at the same time. I want to stand in a room full of people, our bodies and identities totally exposed and we just giggle and gasp at the awe and wonder of each other, our bodies, our identities. How abstract, complex and wonderfully bizarre this all is, this being thing, this experience thing.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Thanks for reading.
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