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Codeine and Consciousness
by Ben Shisler
Last night, returning from a Boston Vegetarian Society dinner social, walking back to my apartment from the subway station, at about 8:30pm, my hand was a bit sore from the surgery that I had last Monday, so I popped one of my acetomenophin-codeine pills, prescribed to me as an analgesic, which I then took not so much because I was in pain, but because I wanted to get my money's worth out of this new, relatively safe, relatively legal drug that I now had an opportunity to explore, a sedative that just might have certain mind-altering potential. Certainly, I've noticed that my dreams have been much more vivid lately, almost as if the codeine awakened me from a several month long slumber. I can see why it is not over-the-counter.
I was hoping to do some laundry before getting to bed, but the codeine was making me prematurely sleepy, and also the intensely wonderful vegan meal I had earlier might have been somewhat somniferous, so I barely had even enough energy to read. The book that I happened to be slogging through was The Philosophy of the Mind, a collection of essays by various philosophers, ancient and modern. The artical that I attempted to read was by our old friend Daniel Dennett, who we metababblers know as the co-author, along with Hofstadter, of the Mind's Eye, a book that essentially attempts to argue Artificial Intelligence into existence-- a classic piece of propaganda for what we in the software industry call "vaporware". Perhaps this vapor is the ghost in the machine, no? My current company, Artificial Life, is reaping some of the benefits from all the AI hype-- we are attempting to turn a profit out of people's overly inflated expectations.
Dennett was attempting to "demolish" the "introspective trap", the view that thought is imagistic. Dennett, like most modern western philosophers, and unlike most ancient Greek philosophers and eastern mystics, is a realist, that is to say he believes that the physical reality is the only reality, and consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon of physical reality. The opposing view is idealism, which holds that mental reality is the only reality, and physical reality is merely an epiphenomenon of consciousness. I am an unabashed idealist, but, alas, I am somewhat lonely in modern western culture. I find realism flat and unfulfilling; in my opinion, the realist assumes too much, takes too much for granted. Assumptions may be useful-- for example, useful for scientific thought-- but utility doesn't make assumptions true. Idealism is simple and unsophisticated-- yet it has its own utility-- idealism opens the door to many pluralistic realities, realities that are unfathomable to the realist, realities that are far more intellectually stimulating and spiritually fulfilling than merely the technical analysis of the physical world.
Phenomenalism, developed to an apex by Aristotle (and the Buddha), teaches us that best way to explore our mental reality is through introspection. By using this method Aristotle and other Greek philosophers were able to intuit amazing insights into the nature of both the physical, and especially mental, realities completely without the aid of science. (Dennett's puny literature pales in comparison.) And one of the "introspective traps" that ancient greek philosophers fell into was that there was "a third world of objective contents of thought", a disembodied realm within the mind that, gasp, actually existed. It never ceases to amaze me how close eastern so-called mysticism is to ancient greek philosophy, and I was thinking about this as I lost consciousness around 9:30pm and fell into a codeine-induced narcolepsy.
I first noticed I was dreaming when I realized that in real life I wouldn't be nearly so ineffectual (non-lucid dreams are characterized by the ceaseless frustration of trying to a achieve a goal and being thwarted at every turn). In this case I was looking at a photograph of a home surrounded by a lake. I kept losing the photograph and, each time I found it again, the image had changed. I knew something was up when this time the garage door was open and there was an infinite black-hole-like void inside. Thus, in this dream, I gain the equivalent of enlightenment-- lucidity, the realization that I was "only" in a dream. Lucidity has amazing benefits-- for one thing, suddenly you cease to be frustrated and ineffectual almost immediately. The realists like to mock the idea of mental imagery-- they say that a mental image is quite unlike a real image-- say a photograph-- because you can turn a photograph upside down or rip it up. So, in my lucid dream, I did exactly that, I turned my mental world upside and ripped it up, and upon ripping it up I had the power of time and space, I could go anywhere I wanted, any time I wanted. So I travelled back to my childhood, back to Pomfret, Vermont. I was amazed how intimately familiar I still was with the local terrain even though in physical reality I haven't been back there in nearly a decade and a half.
My first realization was that a consistant pattern in my life was that I've settled for a smaller and smaller yard. When I was a toddler, for all intents and purposes, in my day-to-day life, I was surrounded by an infinite expanse of pristine wilderness. When I was a child, I settled for an acre wedged between a polluted river and a busy street. Now that I am an adult, I'm living in a domicile with barely any yard at all, just a pathetic strip of land that would best be described as an alleyway.
The realists like to mock the idea of a "mind's eye". They say that nobody talks about a mind's ear or a mind's nose, so obviously the whole idea is rediculous. So in my lucid dream I took special care to note the sounds and the smells of each place where I've lived. The home in Pomfret smelled like woods, soil and leaves, and had no sound but the whisper of trees. West Lebanon had some smell of car exhaust and some sound of traffic, but it wasn't nearly as odious as the constant noxious smell and din of rumbling traffic that unceasingly envelops my current day-to-day life. The spirits had an oracular message for me: unless I took specific steps, I would end up in a home with no yard whatsoever. I would end up in an apartment complex or even, oh the horror, a condo. And, no matter what I consciously thought, deep down inside I would not be happy.
the spirits, take it or leave it. I'm sure much of what I just said would
be nonsensical babble to the die-hard realists. Dennett writes:
Oh, if only Aristotle were still alive today. He would set the matter straight. How can something so meaningful, so profound, be maligned as an abnormal, non-veridical, freak discharge? The only thing abnormal and non-veridical is this freak physical reality in which our consciousnesses are steeped, this fleeting, frustrating, dreamlike epiphenomenon known as maya.
Ben Shisler is an author, computer programmer, and world traveler. His interests include go, linguistics, philosophy, and contact improv dancing. He is always looking for interesting people to hang out with.
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