Chasing Phantoms

No matter how deep, no matter how true and profound, everything we can talk about is a story, an approximation using words and concepts. Let me tell you a very old story that is part of your cultural legacy even if you have never heard it before.

Once upon a time there was a king. He was young, strong and handsome, and a royal pain for his subjects. If he saw something he liked, he took it. When the king wanted to amuse himself with sex and violence, they were available to him, up close and personal, in real time. So the gods decided to distract him and give his subjects some peace. They created a friend for him and the king and his friend left the city together to pursue heroic adventures. But after a few of these adventures, the king caught the eye of the goddess of love. The king turned down her sexual advances because she was known to be brutal with her lovers when she tired of them. She sent down a divine bull to punish him. The king and his friend killed the bull. The gods weren’t going to let that happen without setting the record straight, so they executed the king’s friend. The king couldn’t fathom the death of his friend. Killing monsters and wreaking havoc on his kingdom was one thing, but the death of his friend? And the very idea of his own death! That was not in any way acceptable. It just couldn’t be. He couldn’t abide the thought of it. So after a long journey he found the plant that would give him immortality, but a snake took it while he was swimming (I suppose there is an immortal snake somewhere).

Despondent, he stopped at a pub. The woman who owned the place told him to let it go.

Have a massage, get married, have kids, she advised. Just live your life, that’s what it is all about. Here, have some ale. Go be a good king, that’s your lot in life. Do your duty. Death? It’s going to happen, so just forget about it.

This story is over 4,000 years old. It was one of the oldest stories in the world to be written down, and it had so much traction that it was reworked over more than a thousand years. The king in the story, Gilgamesh, was based on a king that lived in the Middle Eastern city of Uruk 4500 years ago. The theme of just do your best not to be miserable is pretty much the received wisdom of the ages for many of us. You can find the same advice in Ecclesiastes, a book of the Bible of the monotheistic religions that originally developed in this same region.

It makes some sense to me; it is fine as far as it goes. Just live your life, accept your death. I have approached life that way, and for a while it works. But every so often something comes up that demands a bit more attention and then it seems a bit thin. What about when life sucks? What is “your life” anyway? Is it your ever-changing body? Your brain that just needs a good whack to be rendered useless or worse? Do your unreliable memories define you? Are you the totality of your conscious thoughts that seem to rise like bubbles in a bottle of carbonated soda, sneaking up on you from out of nowhere? Do you identify yourself as your emotions, ephemeral waves of bodily sensations and cascading thoughts that will betray you and take over the show at just the wrong time? Your hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, how happy or sad you are when good and bad things happen? Your social, legal and economic entanglements, the promises you made and promises made to you? The decisions you made and those you will make? Where is the center, what thread ties all of these together as your life?

How do you know when to get that massage, if having kids is the right thing to do, what your role is? Not all of us are born king or slave; most of us have tough choices to make. Where do you turn in order to try to come to grips with reality, to learn where you fit in any Cosmic scheme there may be, to understand who you are so you can make better choices?

We are really all in that same very human boat, trying to read the sun and stars for direction, hoping for just a bit of cloud cover during the day to make us comfortable and clear skies at night. What stars do we have to navigate by?

Those of us who do not rely on scriptural fiat or divine revelation for guidance often take a strictly scientific stance. This is true even if we know little about the sciences. In our culture it is the legacy of the Age of Reason, the 18th and 19th century Enlightenment. Trust only what can brought to the level of your senses and measured, even if you don’t actually do the measuring. Be objective, be empirical, find what works, by trial and error if there is no other way. We are all scientists, pushing at what is in front of us and seeing how it pushes back.

Or we might navigate by the Romantic view that intuition is the arbiter of truth.  Amassing more and more data after a certain point is misleading and demoralizing. Measurement stifles what is good and poetic in us, what makes us special, if we aren’t careful. In the early 19th century the movement called Romanticism was a rejection of the material certainty of Enlightenment science and philosophy and the cruelty and indignity of the ever so rational material progress of the Industrial Revolution. The Romantics were often artists, writers and musicians who put their trust in intuition and the depth of our emotional experience rather than intellectual attainment and reason. Yet to those who think in terms of science, the Romantic, intuitive approach is rendered secondary, if not useless, by being hopelessly subjective. Truth and reality seem to be up for grabs for the Romantic, merely aesthetic personal choices, without the self-correcting observational methods of science. What makes you think you are so special, anyway?

The way the lines are drawn it seems that we are presented with clear and inevitable choices between religious or Romantic approaches that demand that we leave intelligence and discrimination at the door and enter a world of dogmatic belief or subjective relative values, or a scientific view of a mindless universe of random chance, an existence marked by constant movement as a result of blind forces that somehow resulted in us and our need to ask these questions.

Of course nowadays, given the seeming overwhelming success of the Enlightenment project (the jury is still out), we are assured that intelligent people who aren’t brainwashed will make the right choice, the only choice that rational people could make. Science is the only way to know what is true and real. Isn’t that obvious?

Let me tell you another story.

A genius, a prolific mathematician and scientist, was on his deathbed. He had a visitor who complimented him on his brilliant life, exalting his many accomplishments as a consummate rational intellectual giant.

Ah, the dying towering intellect sighed, but we do chase after phantoms.

Those were his last words.

Pierre-Simone Laplace was a hero of the Age of Reason. The French word that is translated as “phantoms” was chimère, chimera in English. In both languages the word originally referred to a mythological beast made up of parts of various animals, but has come to mean a dream or fantasy.

Phantoms! Isn’t that the way of the Romantic, all chimeras all the time? How is it that this man of mathematics and science summed up his life as chasing fantasies?

Is that our lives, are we defined by the phantoms we chase, the fantastic beasts that we cobble together?

A modern philosopher asked what it would be like to be a bat. His point was that we can’t know a bat’s experience, the quality of bat consciousness. A bat’s life is flying guided by sonar, chasing and eating moths, having sex and babies with other bats. A bat’s experience would be direct without verbal description. Is there any way we can imagine that? Do bats chase phantoms, or are they good with moths and bat sex? Are phantoms just an accidental side effect, an evolutionary aberration of our large human brains?

It does seem something to consider. If so, maybe chasing after them isn’t always a good idea.

How do we recognize chimeras? There is nothing to measure, no objective criteria we can use. Maybe the Romantics had a point. Maybe there is room for intuition. After all, intuition is not dead; it was not murdered by the quantification of experience known as the experimental approach or scientific method. Scientists and physicians recognize the need for intuition. Science is just busy work without intuition fueling the great leaps forward, and physicians would be unable to make decisions or respond to those who come to them for help as fellow humans without intuition. Not everything fits an neat algorithm in medicine!

The Romantic, the artist, the visionary, reminds us that without intuition our lives are also just busy work, we are automatons that keep moving until our batteries run out. We will be buffeted about, twitching here and there as determined by our conditioned responses and our biologic programming. It is noise rather than music.

It is easy to get seduced into thinking that we need to take sides, romantic visionary or calculating scientist. We love to classify, draw lines, and categorize. We want to make the story simple and neat so we can hold it, turn it over, examine it and fool ourselves into thinking we have grasped it. We take these mental shortcuts because it often works for us and we evolved to be good at it. But it easily becomes nothing more than a habit, a way to convince ourselves that we have it together. We have a viewpoint and we are sticking to it, it is a matter of integrity, yet all the while we are just dreaming up chimeras.

I don’t think we have to take sides in this way. I found that science is a magnificent source of knowledge that leads to the edge of what we can grasp with the intellect, challenging everyday common sense. Looking through the lens of modern science, what seems to be solid and to proceed in an orderly, linear fashion becomes yet another phantom, without substance or fixed bearings. Our world as a chimera cobbled together from perceptions and our interpretations of those perceptions, whether in our daily life or using formal and careful experimental observations. Science teaches us that we live in a wondrous universe that we can barely imagine and certainly cannot fully understand with the intellect alone. Science has its Romantic side, its search for symmetry, beauty and reliance on inspiration at the cutting edge.

Zen is also about how we make and chase our chimeras, and what to do about it. Maybe there is more to it for a true scientific genius or a Zen master, that’s for them to say, but for most of us maybe recognizing chimeras and not being distracted by phantoms is a good start.

I might be a bit biased, of course. My own journey has been from Romantic idealist to hippie seeker living on a spiritual commune, to a physician and medical scientist, and then student of Zen Buddhism. I see it as an unfolding, as an adventure, that has opened up and illuminated, rather than limited, my approach to life.

You may not know much about science or plan on being a Buddhist, but I found that you don’t need a Nobel prize or to sit at the feet of a Zen master for years on end for stories from science and Zen to challenge you and be meaningful in your life.

But they are stories!

At least maybe we can do better than settling for the tavern lady’s advice to Gilgamesh.

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