By Josh Wagner
I like lunch. There’s nothing more comforting than sitting at Wilbur lunch with a friend on a weekday staring at a burrito bowl. Looking around the crowded dining hall, I wonder how many hidden faces are of people I might recognize from my freshman dorm, from class, from miscellaneous encounters. And, I ask myself the same angsty question I asked myself in high school: How much can we possibly know about one another?
It seems like we can break down the kinds of interactions that we have into two categories: physical and mental. What we know about a person is the result of a series of repeated interactions over the course of our lives. How often do we see them? Where do we see them? Are they always eating TAP sushi or running to class? What’s our psychic impression of them? Does seeing them, if only for a brief 40 seconds, improve our day in any way?
These are the kinds of questions that help determine how much we know about the outer and inner lives of other people. These external expressions, what I think of as physical actions, are the facts of what we do each day, disassociated from their context. I walk to class in the Main Quad, I wear newsboy hats to Daily meetings, I create mango smoothies at Wilbur brunch. These kinds of actions are easily discernible — anyone around me for long enough will be able to tell me my habits: the things that I tend to do. But, this kind of outward expression is itself meaningless. Knowing that I do these things (the what) reveals nothing about whether I enjoy doing them or how I feel about them (the why).
While physical actions focus on what I do, mental activities emphasize the inquiring subject who is doing them. Self-conceptualizations are the cornerstone of this kind of activity: Do I like the lunch today? How do I want to send my day? Am I enjoying myself? Do I want to be here right now? This kind of feeling-oriented way of being in the world is entirely hidden from the objective observer, seeing me and my burrito bowl in the dining hall. As German philosopher G.W. Leibniz writes, our internal lives are, “inexplicable on mechanical principles, i.e. by shapes and movements” — we cannot possibly be explained away by physical processes.
The fictionalized ‘I’ at the center of how I think about myself as a coherent person is the foundation for my self and my self-creation. This psychic self can rationalize my actions to seem less morally bankrupt or more negative than they actually are — there is no control mechanism, no uniform orientation to determine what is what. And yet, if you asked me to locate where exactly this ‘I’ is located, I wouldn’t know where to look.
Sure, it’s easy to pinpoint my ‘self’ as being in my skull. But, if my internal life is really only contingent on having a mind, it negates the existence of the rest of my body and I do really like eating my lunch. I don’t want to be the kind of self that only reflects and wonders without really ever existing in any tangible sense. I don’t want to delve into any philosophical debates about the mind-body split, but it feels as if my physical actions (literally outside my body) are a more accurate expression of my self than the mechanical processes of my brain.
And, if I’m having so much internal trouble trying to figure out what and who I am, how am I going to figure that out about other people. As the British poet-musician William Blake writes, “[h]ow do you know that every bird that cuts the airy way is a whole universe of delight closed by your senses five?” If you did know, how would you be able to tell?
Blake himself was unconvinced of the reality of other people — like birds, they too could be locked into their own universe, chained by the cosmic limitations of the senses, forever closed to outside understanding. And, sitting in Wilbur, I also wonder if anyone around me is real in any meaningful sense.
It’s easy to assume that I’m real. I’m me. It would be much better for me if I’m real and it is everyone else who is a magical figment conjured by my childhood demon-lizard, affectionately named Georgie. Of course, there is no immediately obvious way to go about proving this, but for the purposes of my fictionalized self-conception, I might as well be real because my sense of what is real is based off of my own sensory experiences and existence. I take what is real to be what is like me. If I’m not real in this very basic sense, then I don’t know what reality is and I’m just mis-using the word.
The people around me also act as if they are real, going to class, struggling on p-sets, dining at Coupa. But, what convinces me of their reality or unreality is the amount of mental space I share with them; how often we think of each other and ‘live’ in one another’s mind. The more shared neural space, the closer and more real I feel to someone else. A thought is friendship’s currency.
This kind of shared experience can also be mediated through objects — as long as the same thing is on a group of people’s shared mind, they feel connected, surpassing any lower physical connection. Loving the John McLaughlin painting in the Cantor, obsessing over the same alt-j song, quoting “The Big Lebowski” in every possible social interaction all bind our minds and our selves together, making them seem real.
But, if I’m unaware of your artistic sensibilities, don’t know you well enough to discourse on the superiority of McLaughlin to Reinhardt. or just don’t know anything substantial about your internal life, how can you be real? This means that most of the world is fraudulent, full of people who act like me, but who quintessentially are not like me. Because I can’t conceive of either their existence (people sitting in similar dining halls in Ukraine and in Iowa) or can’t penetrate their external shell (Sebastian from philosophy class), these people can’t exist in the same meaningful way as the people physically and socially close to me.
So, it seems as if categories like music, beauty, language, nature, visual art, math define and connect us in a very meaningful way. But, if this is true, then are we not reducible to our external, physical actions? If I’m William Blake loving cheerleader #9 who also enjoys getting lost and burrito bowls, is the set of all people I can connect to predetermined? Instead of being defined and connected by a shared feeling or life experience, I would be connected by potentially meaningless actions.
The problem that I’m identifying here is the problem of categories — they don’t really seem to work. In the same way that I am distinct from the things that I do, humans are not discernible into their actions. In fact, there is so much contained within each of us, so many things that we care about and could connect over that relying on a single shared interest seems arbitrary. Maybe there’s really no order to human connection, no reason why I think art history majors are more real than bio-mechanical engineers; we are atoms after all, thrown together at odd angles, randomly bumping into one another because of inertia rather than cosmic design, whatever.
Like fresh raspberries, we accommodate ourselves to the sides of the milk bottle we are placed in, controlled by physical structures that we have no agency over. Yet, from this world of finite, forced interactions, the infinite possibilities for connection and holiness are made possible.
The midnight moon of possibilities is forever veiled by clouds, just intangibly out of grasp.
Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.