Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Whiff of Teleology

The plane arced up over Lake Michigan and I looked down, tingling with wonder at the enormous sheets of dull white spanning the slate waters. I'd just spent days watching ice hummocking on the shore. Maybe it was that dramatic perspective shift, combined with the exhilaration of takeoff, that cast me into a peculiar lucidity.

I saw massive sheets of ice: a jumbled mosaic with tiles the size of city blocks, of neighborhoods and small towns. I saw the shear planes: how those gigantic tiles had separated along north-south lines and slid against each other along east-west lines. I saw how they had drifted—were drifting.

As I imagined the process, I saw my mind spin it into something more: a narrative. Here's a rough translation of the images and feelings that flowed through my mind.

The ice was forming a sheet over the whole lake, but the wind kept pushing against it, and broke it off before it could finish.

To understand why that strikes me as hilariously odd, you have to understand my core conceit: that I am a rational person. I love to think of myself as empirically-minded. "I'm a reductionist," I tell myself. "I have a mechanistic view of the universe. I don't believe in boggarts and spirits. I don't believe the objects around me have animus."

This informs how I think of religious and superstitious people. My inner face sneers at the thought of their sky bully, and bursts into braying laughter at their absurd notion that the universe cares one way or the other about our arbitrary numerology. I bathe in the ideation of what they are, and what I am not. I separate myself. I tell myself that teleology is anathema to me—that I'm all about the etiology.

And then my mind runs for teleology like a child for an ice cream truck.

Cold air blew over the lake, cooling the water and pushing on it. As the water froze, the ice broke up and moved west. That is what happened. But that's not what my mind saw. My mind saw intent. My mind saw drama. My mind anticipated the freezing-over of the lake as though it were a goal; the ice was longing for that moment when it joined into a continuous sheet, and the wind worked to thwart it. There was a good guy and a bad guy. In that single burst of images and feelings in my mind, there was heroism and villainy, mustache twirling and victimhood.

I wish I could convey this better. I feel like I'm painting a picture of me tripping my way through my life without the need for acid. I'm not. I don't think my mind works particularly differently than anyone else's; that's the point. I'm talking about the gap between my explicated mind—the me that works in the light of the world and tells itself what it is—and the real conceptual landscape that exists prior to, independently of and despite any explication. I don't see that gap very often; the meat is usually too good at functioning in the world to see it. But once in a while I catch a glimpse—a particularly vivid flash of thought—and it's as though the fingertips of my intellect brush against that conceptual landscape, and I feel the true shape of it. That landscape is nothing like what I usually think it is. It's a landscape of teleology. And seeing that helps me to hold onto empathy.

I pride myself on the mental constructs that help me interpret the world. But that process of interpretation happens long and long after the objects have formed, cooled and hardened within my conceptual landscape. That landscape is the ur-layer of my self. It is there to lick up the photons entering my eyes, the bearing and shearing stresses entering my fingertips, the temperature gradients sweeping over skin. It's the forge from which I draw the atomic-level building blocks of my existence and it is bursting with teleology.

I am a primate who weaves stories of intent and animus into its reality at the basement level. And if I, with all my hubris in thinking otherwise, can do this, then I must have empathy for my fellow primates who do it.

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