The experience machine and Jung’s symbolic attitude

The experience machine and Jung’s symbolic attitude

I heard from one of my lecturers at Wits recently about a book called Better never to have been: the harm of coming into existence, written by a local lad, Professor David Benatar, HOD of the philosophy department at the University of Cape Town. As the title suggests Benatar proposes that it is far better never to be born; that one is irreparably harmed by coming into existence.

The two arguments that Benatar offers for this view are:

1.By bringing someone into existence, one harms her by causing all the bad aspects of her life. By bringing someone into existence, one does not benefit her at all by causing the good aspects of her life.
2.Taking into account both the good and the bad aspects of a person’s life, most lives are overall very bad and not worth having.

(Source: Elizabeth Harman, (2009), Nous, 43:4)

Whilst this may not be an entirely new idea, echoing thinkers like Schopenhauer, Camus and even Kafka, one has to applaud Benatar for a clean and unambiguous articulation of the dilemma we all face.

Being alive is bloody difficult.

Furthermore it is frustrating, painful, messy, frequently humiliating, lonely, very irritating and in anyone who bothers to contemplate it for any length of time it leads to a profound existential angst.

Why am I alive? What is the purpose of my existence? What is the point of being born if I am destined to die? In the very short and frequently painful duration of my existence what exactly is it I am meant to accomplish? 

Or something to that effect anyhow.

Naturally there is always the illusion of hope one can cling to, the idiocy of optimism, the ignorance of pragmatism or even the ostrich with its head in the sand approach. Recently in fact, this was suggested to me by a fellow student in my Anthroposophy study group, and I’m sure you have been on the receiving end of similar well meant advice if like me you are given to wondering about the meaning of life.

Something along the lines of “well I don’t know it just seems silly to me, what the point in asking these questions, I for my part am far more pragmatic…”

And one must concede that there is merit in this criticism. But for those of us that are afflicted with a mind that thinks and a souls that seeks, it is a constitutive condition of our lives. That there may not be any answers, well that sure doesn’t remove the questions…

Anyhow with this in mind, I met my friend and confidante Ryan Parker for a drink and a bite to eat at Vovo Telo in Pankhurst last week. (Great pasta there by the way! We must be grateful for these small pleasures).  So it was our conversation soon turned to this well worn, but no less stimulating for that, topic.

What is the purpose of our lives?

And during the course of our discussion, fuelled by the Deli pasta and Stephen Weis (unfiltered) beer we were able to narrow this broad question down to a slightly more pointed one. It is this question I want to share with you, and the profound difficulty in coming to terms with it. And yet it is a dilemma which if our lives are to have any meaning at all we absolutely must answer.

Simply stated it is this:

Is my destiny in my own hands?

It will be easier if I state the problems with both positions which illustrate then the difficulty in answering this question.

Some would say it is. There was a movie once you may have seen it The Secret, the power of attraction, think positive thoughts, visualise… all the usual bullshit, you know we’ve heard it all a thousand times. The bottom line is you can manifest the (or at least your) future.

I, like any sane person with any critical faculty at all, question the wisdom of this. Did you for example manifest your birth? Some would suggest you did- if so do you have any recollection of this?

* Do you choose to get older?
* Do you choose to fall ill?
* Do you believe that you can choose not to die? Or when you will die?

Think about the most important things that have happened in your life, meeting the person you love most in the world, the one you hate most, your most profound religious experience, your most meaningful encounter with beauty, your most terrible encounter with life…

Did you really choose the time, place, and manner of these?

I think not.

Now of course the ever resourceful die hard New Ager may suggest well you did but maybe not you as you are now, your spirit, or your unconscious or something along those lines. However there is a real problem with this line of defence for the you-control-your-own-destiny position. We can allow that possibly you, in the more expansive sense of the idea, manifest your own destiny.

What does that mean?

Well possibly not everything you manifest is directed by your conscious intention, what about your unconscious psyche? Now when we use the term unconscious in this broad sense you can substitute your higher self, your as yet unborn spirit i.e. selecting a particular incarnation, even God in a liberal interpretation of the concept.

I think there is value in this line of thought. I would hardly have dedicated such a substantial portion of my own life to the study of depth psychology if I did not. However as I say I think this line of thinking faces a serious problem, commits a logical flaw if you will. Specifically this:

In the ultimate sense of the word something is only yours if it is conscious.

When we strip the “I’ of all extraneous accruements, what we are left with is pure consciousness. And if you take the time to ponder on this you will find that when you say I, it is this conscious island in the centre of the cosmos that you are referring to.  This is well known in both eastern and western mysticism.

So in conclusion then I hope the problem with the I-manifest-my-own-destiny approach is clear. Simply whilst it sounds very noble and like the thing to do, it is also clearly an illusion. It is an illusion which life very soon dispels. It is at best a facile tool of the narcissistic persona, propped up but ultimately empty.

Let’s now consider the opposite position.

Is my life and fate is subject to a destiny outside of my direct control.

Once again it matters not what you mean specifically by ‘destiny’ here; at least not for the purposes of this discussion. Destiny could be something totally random, it could be a prescribed life path, it could be directed by your unconscious psyche, by God i.e. simply something greater than you and unknown directly to you.

Now I could be mistaken but I strongly suspect this is our default belief. How could it not be? God knows that the experience of life and what it brings to us seems to eclipse the ambit of our ego and the egos most heartfelt desires.

To put it bluntly life seems bigger than you or I.

I think all (but most certainly those in the Judeo Christian tradition) religions embrace this position. The best and most beautiful expression from this comes from Islam.

Insha’Allah (Arabic)
Deo volente (Latin)
If (and only if) it is God’s will (English).

Although I was born a Maronite Catholic, my father hails from the Lebanon where French and Arabic are the national languages and the majority of the Lebanese community is Muslim. So it was that as I grew up I would often hear this phrase. My father’s name was Saleem.

“How are you Saleem?”
“Insha’Allah” (meaning: I am alive thanks God, and also I am as well as God allows).

“Saleem how’s the family?”
“Insha’Allah” (meaning: God is good and so it is the family is well because such is His will)

“Saleem so will you buy that house/ win that race/ succeed at that project?”
“Insha’Allah” (I will if it is the will of God, i.e. it is my will, but it cannot come into being unless it is not only my will, but the will of God).

[May Allah keep and bless you Saleem.]

Now I don’t wish to deny a certain prejudice for the beauty and humility of this position. I am reminded of my favourite verse from the Rubaiyat.

Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so wisely they are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door where in I went.

Nevertheless, one does not need to be a rocket scientist to see that there is a major problem with this type of fatalism. It is quite simply its own reward. If I do not resolve to take action and to carve out my own future and the future of generations that will follow me then who else will? God perhaps, the unconscious, my higher self…?

Call me a cynic but I doubt it.

God I think helps those who help themselves. Or as Gary Player once said, “The more I practice the luckier I get.”

The very possibility of freedom, of which I am a passionate proponent, demands that I am able to act freely and in so doing alter the course of my destiny.

So in a nutshell this is the dilemma. If I fail to act as though I am able to shape my destiny a fatal passivity sets in from which little of constructive value can emerge. Yet is almost certain that a great portion of my destiny, I would say the greater portion, lies outside of my conscious choice.

I need to aspire to freedom when the truth is an un-chosen fate awaits me.

Or to paraphrase Camus, I need to rebel against the absurdity of my existence.

The experience machine

An illustration may help to amplify this idea. There is a thought experiment that comes from a philosopher called Robert Nozick. It is called the experience machine, now anyone who has seen The Matrix will immediately understand the concept here; the experience machine embeds my mind in a virtual reality.

Briefly it goes like this: I go into the experience machine offices where I fill out a questionnaire. The form is a questionnaire that asks exactly what type of experiences I wish to have whilst plugged into the experience machine. Naturally once I am plugged in I will, for the purpose of making the experience as real as possible, have no recollection of the fact that this is virtual and not absolutely real.

Now the question that Nozick poses is as follows: is it any different to have the pure (and virtual) experience in the experience machine from having that experience in the ‘real world’? To use the example Brian Penrose did (Wits 2012), consider writing a novel. Do you think there is something inherently more valuable in actually writing a novel in the real world as opposed to merely having the experience of writing a novel in the experience machine (and of course of the public and critical acclaim that you could have in the experience machine :-))?

(Source: Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick, 1974)

The purpose of this thought experiment is that intuitively most people believe that there is in fact something missing, some dimension absent, in the experience machine which makes it a poor cousin of the real world.

As it happens I don’t agree and neither did Ryan. We both believed that the experience in the machine would be every bit as valuable as one in the real world which if you think about it is simply a 10 000 year old experience machine.

What do you think? Would you plug in as a substitute for the ‘real thing’?

Even if you wouldn’t, and no doubt many people reading this would not, I want you for the sake of argument to allow that the experience machine’s reality could be as good and real(?) as the real thing.

Here is the problem though as Ryan so vividly expressed it.

What about our blood, he asked? Is there not something in our blood which dictates our destiny, what it is we are meant to do, as opposed to what it is we want to do?

Now we are back to square one. As you no doubt realise, the blood of course is just another metaphor for this hidden force that seems to dictate so much of our lives. As Anja is always fond of pointing out, it is so often necessity rather than desire which leads us to individuate.

If you doubt this and genuinely locate yourself in the I manifest my own future camp, seriously think about this idea.

Do you really feel competent and qualified to choose the rest of your life? Virtual or otherwise, but to genuinely get a sense of the question it works better inside Nozick’s experience machine.

And of course no one will know the answer to this except you so you can be 100% honest, there is no one looking over your shoulder for whom you need to put on a brave face.

I’m betting that you’ll say no.

If you do say no though, it begs the question, why the hell not? What kind of man or woman are you that is too afraid to step up to the plate and create your own future? Do you wish to remain infantile forever, for surely that is what it is, a form of remaining a child? Admittedly a child of the cosmos, but a child none the less.

Just how long are you planning to remain in the nursery?

Now don’t get me wrong because I am not patronising you here, this question is absolutely real for me and I genuinely do not know the answer. Anyway it’s something to think about.

A Jungian perspective

Jung provides a possible way of approaching this paradox. Consider what it is about being able to choose the rest of your life that is inherently distasteful, that leaves you feeling as though you just may be cheating yourself out of the most important thing that life has to offer.

It is, I suggest, the loss of mystery. What makes life a beautiful (even in the face of the suffering which comes along with it as Benatar reminds us) is not-knowing, rather than knowing. If we are still alive in spirit as well as body, we retain the childhood wonder at the possible, not the probable.

What could happen?
Where will this road lead?

It is the possibility of a greater dream than we can ever imagine that makes life meaningful, worth living.

Nevertheless our desires and intentions are not unimportant to be dismissed as insignificant. They should at least act as a rudder as we make our journey across the stormy ocean. This is for Jung the relationship between the ego (the conscious self) and the self (the totality of the psyche conscious and unconscious).

Analogous to the parent and child; it is an ignorant parent that does not listen to the desires of the child regardless of how infantile and misguided they may seem.

But just how can we do this, express our desires and manifest our intentions without closing down this bigger dream, without losing sight of the greater possibility?

Well, as Jung would have it, through the symbolic attitude. An orientation to our desires and the objects of our consciousness which treats them symbolically rather than as signs. I have certain intentions, but as long as I treat them as symbols I do not irreparably harm the unknown god that is possibility.

As always with love,



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