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Monday, April 7, 2014

Living in Others' Dreams, continued

When I read Oliver Burkeman's column this Sunday something clicked in my head. The subject of pursuing "the interesting" rather than "the truth" has to be related to in some way to the issue of living in other people's dreams instead of one's own dreams instead of a waking state.

Burkeman quoted Murray Davis to suggest that our pursuit of ideas is not motivated by a pursuit of truth but rather a pursuit of mental excitement. Or, more precisely, an escape from boredom.

I am as guilty as anyone in this escape. The mind is bored by ... what? Not working outdoors? Not hunting and gathering? Not struggling for survival every day and every moment? Not threatened by a thousand dangers of living in the wild? Not exhausted by constant physical exertion day after day? I'm not complaining, but the butt is indeed in the chair all day (like now), and the mind is indeed bored.

For a short while I got into the Chinese knock-off version of Quora known as 知乎。I could spend hours on it browsing various answers to various questions, most of which I could not give a toss or relate to my own life. It's positively addictive. Of course one could argue that this addiction has to do with the urge to know others, to learn, to understand, to peek into another mind. Whatever, but at one point I began to wonder about the meaning and purpose of acquiring knowledge.

In the world I grew up, the acquisition of knowledge is always good. The more the better. When I was small I had a knack for acquiring and retaining a variety of factoids from books I read. My father was proud of that, and a lot of people envied my "wide base of knowledge." Positive reinforcement might have given it a push, and now it is self perpetuating. This thirst for knowledge led me into a journalism job at one point, which I enjoyed a lot. I could have been at it still, despite sometimes wondering about the point of it.

I occasionally read the blog Farnam Street by a Canadian economist (or maybe a trader, I'm not clear on the difference). He reads several books a week, mostly nonfiction, and posts thoughts about them daily, usually quoting blocks of text from each book. The volume of his reading is very large. The tag line in his email newsletter is "Do you want to get smarter?" It's another big subject altogether about whether knowledge makes one smarter.

I'm not knocking this lifestyle of constantly trying to absorb a lot of knowledge and living in other people's dreams. That is how I have lived for most of my life. The proliferation of TED Talk is an indication that I am not alone in this. Of course, the mind's thrills do not have to come from TED Talk type of knowledge. It could also be knowledge of how your family and friends are living, what they had for lunch, what movies they saw, and how big their babies are now, via Facebook and WeChat and whatever. Or knowledge of how your favorite celebrities are living.

This is also a part of the issue of the separation of mind and body. The mind pursues thrills that the body cannot provide (unless you're an extreme sport practitioner). So it goes elsewhere and, in today's world, finds thrills easily in movies, computer games, and the Web. Not even books any more for the thrills come too slowly from the pages.

Skating is the only time when the mind cannot detach itself from the body. Running is only partially so. What is real experience of my own? If the mind does not register the body's experience, is it real? If the mind gets its thrills without the body's involvement, is it real? Are we all living in day dreams all day long? Worse, are we all living in other people's day dreams all day long? The problem is, at least in today's world, it is so easy for the mind to find endless thrills, and the body only gets in the way. The real thrills brought about by the body, like the sunset mentioned in Burkeman's article, can't compete with a blip on the screen.

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