My role in the mystery of awareness by Bill Kirton

Five years ago, I wrote a blog entitled Vitamin pills, toilet rolls and philosophy. It was simply to offer light relief amongst the specific miseries of that period and give a loose idea of the strangeness of the world I inhabit. I’m repeating it here because of two recent events. First, there was a fascinating, informative (and very long) article in The Guardian. Then came the opening of Tom Stoppard's latest play, The Hard Problem, which examines the issue of  the coexistence of 'brain' and 'mind'. Thanks to those events, I now see that, far from being the ravings of a disturbed psyche, my absurd confessions were part of an ongoing philosophical argument about consciousness and may qualify me for the role of a modern Brahan Seer.

The Guardian article examined the mystery of awareness. Its arguments were too complex for my tiny brain to summarise here but it seems that philosophers, neuroscientists, poets, religious people and all sorts of others have been trying to get to grips with the idea of consciousness for centuries. The specific thread that brings my old blog into the equation is something called  panpsychism, which is ‘the dizzying notion that everything in the universe might be conscious’. The brilliance of my anticipation of this development can be judged from my musings in 2010, which went as follows:

I don’t know if it’s a writer-type thing but in many ways I inhabit a strange world. Let me give you a couple of examples:
Most mornings I take a multi-vitamin pill. I know the scientists have proved that they make no difference but I’ve been doing it for years and, since it doesn’t seem to have harmed me, why stop?

Anyway, the pills are in the normal sort of container, which I tip and shake in order to ‘dispense’ one into my hand. But sometimes, two or three come out, occasionally with such force that they bounce off my palm to roll across the work surface. And so my mind starts speculating about them. Is it an escape bid? If so, what do they intend to escape for and to? How many career choices does a vitamin pill have? Alternatively, it might be a suicide mission, clamouring for my attention, each pill wanting to be the one I choose to send down into the acids that await it. So deciding which ones to put back into the container becomes a question of ethics.

And the speculation continues. What’s life like for them inside their container? They just lie there, cuddled up against one another in the dark, for around 24 hours,  at which point they start realising that one of them will soon be taking its last journey. Is the boredom of such an existence so great that they try to shuffle to the top of the heap to give themselves a chance of being that lucky one? Or is being part of that tight, localised community reassuring to such an extent that they burrow down to make sure they stay a little longer with all their pill pals? Do they, in the other 23+ hours, discuss their condition, share their angst?

And when it comes down to there being just two left, then one … well, the scenario is appalling. Those last two obviously didn’t want to go, they’ve avoided the drop into my palm but it’s now become inevitable. And I feel sorry for them.

For the second example, I won’t go into the same amount of detail for reasons which will be obvious. It involves toilet rolls. No, I don’t mean is it better to be one of the sheets at the outside end of the roll in order to get it over with quickly. After all, the manufacturers have dictated the fate of the individual sheets and, if you’re on the outside, that’s it. It’s rather like our Great British aristocratic hierarchy. – some of us are just cheap, thin tissues on the roll of life, others double-padded, dimpled, luxury creations. We’re all headed for the same … er … end, but have wildly different experiences before we get there.

So my concern isn’t with individual sheets, but with the rolls themselves. You see, my toilet roll holder is a sort of stainless steel pole which sits on its base on the floor and holds three rolls, one on top of the other. I have the power to grant ... well, immortality to the roll at the bottom, while those stacked above it, especially the top one, exist for mere weeks. The ethical dilemma this time is whether, in fairness to each roll, when the top one is finished with, I should just put a new one back on top of the other two or move them up and put the new roll on the bottom. (Notice my admirable restraint here as I avoid exploiting the juxtaposition of the words ‘toilet paper’ and ‘bottom’ to make ribald jokes.)

And that, friends,  is the nature of the strange world I mentioned. I find myself giving inanimate objects feelings, desires, ambitions. I feel sorry for them, admire their fortitude, courage and stoicism, I empathise with things such as staples and glue.

Which is, of course, stupid. But it’s stupid in a specific way because I’m imposing my values on them. Just because I lead a meaningless existence, it doesn’t mean that they do. Vitamin pills, toilet rolls and all the other things are brought into the world with a single, specific, dedicated purpose. And they fulfil their destiny. The pill delivers its goodies into my system and vanishes, just as it was ordained it should. In other words, all these things are much better off than I am. They have the security of a function. Their essence and existence coincide.

In fact, now I come to think of it, they should be feeling sorry for me.


Lee said…
Careful now -- someone might think you're suggesting that security of function is a Good Thing. Men have thought that about women for centuries.


Fun post!
Mari Biella said…
Brilliant post, Bill. It's a relief to know that I'm not the only person who ascribes emotions and characteristics to inanimate objects. The other day my laptop went on the blink, and I gave it a pretty furious talking-to. Later, I felt so guilty that I was tempted to apologise. The poor thing was doing its best...
Jan Needle said…
you don't need them to feel sorry for you, bill - i already do. see a bleeding psychiatrist. and remind me to tell you my favourite third reich joke sometime. it starts: 'you hef two schances....'
Susan Price said…
A woman's ambition should exceed her grasp, eh, Lee? Yeah, but all in all, I'd rather be a pebble. A flint pebble.

Great post, Bill - I saw a comedian on 'Would I Lie To You' who said he felt sorry for the bowls in his kitchen cabinet, and often rearranged them so the ones on the bottom would be used as often as the ones on the top. He thought the ones on the bottom must feel bored and neglected.

The other team confidently said he was lying - obviously he was making it up. Who would do that? He swore that he was telling the truth.

I doubted - but now the scales are lifted from my eyes and I see that, in fact, he felt the pain of those bowls.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Lee. It’s not necessarily a ‘good thing’, but at least it’s a ‘thing’.

Thank God there’ll be someone to share my asylum cell, Mari. I frequently suggest out loud to my computer that it’s being unreasonable, and my thanks to my car after a particularly long journey is always effusive.

Jan, thanks for your kindness and understanding.
Bob Newman said…
Thanks, Bill. I found this profoundly moving and reassuring. It's only when they start talking back that you need to worry.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks Susan. Nice to have infected another person with panpsychist angst, and chapeau to that perceptive comedian.
Bill Kirton said…
You're welcome, Bob. Rather than worry about them talking back, though, I'd welcome a dialogue, especially with the vitamin pills. Would they be all full of zest? Or is it possible for such an object to be listless?
Chris Longmuir said…
I'll never look at toilet rolls in the same way again :)
Oh I can identify with this. The life of stuff. I have a sort of hierarchy. Plants - it's a no brainer. I talk to all my plants, treat them as individuals and they invariably respond. I collect and occasionally deal in teddy bears but I have a couple of pairs of old bears that I should sell but can't bear to because they'll be separated and although they were all bought at different times - well - they've become friends. And have you ever left a few bits of sweetcorn or baked beans in the bottom of the tin and thought that they were escaping? Except that recycling and tin rinsing now dooms them to be eaten ...
Bill Kirton said…
Sorry, Chris, you'll have to find another hobby.

Catherine, your comments reminded me that, for some, all these 'inanimate' things carry souls. My PhD thesis was on Victor Hugo and his (sort of) Manichean beliefs involved souls transmigrating up and down through various levels of torment, so even the 'flint pebble' that Susan wants to be is a dreadful prison for a voiceless soul.
Lydia Bennet said…
Great post Bill! I anthropomorphise objects all the time. All my cars (but the one before last) are female and had/have names. I still mourn for Celest, my first convertible. I have heated rows out loud with supermarket self-checkouts. I can't bear to shut a drawer with a bit of clothing caught in it. When my daughter was small, I couldn't bear it when she left dolls lying about with no clothes on, I felt they were cold and had to cover them up. Of course this is the problem with consciousness research, we have it and it's hard to imagine entities without it! And possibly hard to detect its existence or otherwise.
glitter noir said…
Thank God Byron didn't exercise Kirtonian restraint when he rhymed Venus with 'the pen is' (mightier, etc.)

Brilliant piece of work, Bill.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks Lydia.
That Guardian article is very interesting. Asks the big questions and offers some fascinating answers.

Thanks Reb.
I've been a fan of Byron since my teens and some of his rhyming is inspired, as in Don Juan:
But O ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not henpecked you all?
Bill Kirton said…
By the way, Lydia. How can you tell if a car's male or female? Are there added bits? Or bits missing?
glitter noir said…
Byron as the first rapper? Now, that might make for an interesting post.
Dennis Hamley said…
I confess to all of this. I grieve for my cars when I see them go but also fear they may be glad to see the back of me. Possibly for me the greatest moment of sheer empathy with a fictional character was during an episode of Fawlty Towers, when John Cleese flayed his Austin 1100 (I nearly wrote 'alive' there) with a branch torn from a tree (which didn't complain) screaming 'You've had it coming to you...' It's good. It shows how much we artistic types are in tune with the whole of existence. So I'm not apologetic after all. I'm proud.
Lydia Bennet said…
Bill I somehow just 'know'. I bond with my cars partly by giving them names, the only boy was the convertible I bought after Celeste had to go - it was a bmw and a beautiful car, but somehow I felt it was male and also I coudn't warm to it - it never seemed to have a name. (the names also seem to just come to me! Primrose, Suzi, Araminta, Candy, Mary, Celeste, Bianca...) Primrose belonged to my mother and we shared her for a while. she didn't like men, when my brother or father drove her she'd stall in the middle of a right turn or some such. She never did that for us.
Bill Kirton said…
Yes Dennis, the image of the Cleese car-bashing occurred several times as I was writing the blog. It’s a classic because so many people identified with it (including artistic types like us, obviously).

Lydia, I think this anthropomorphism that goes on between you and automobiles is surely worth a blog of its own. Please. I mean, that poor, nameless, male convertible, beautiful but unloved, conscious of the fact and seeing a procession of cherished replacements, each anointed with a name that wouldn’t be out of place in The Great Gatsby. As for that vixen Primrose… well!
Enid Richemont said…
Desert spoons are slim, trendy ladies, soup spoons fat ones. Teaspoons are children, egg spoons babies. Forks are adolescent males, knives mature ones.
It was always so for me, and probably still is. Cutlery has soul.
Bill Kirton said…
I hope you realise, Enid, that you've added another category of 'thinginess' for me to relate to. I must now go and ponder my cutlery.
glitter noir said…
Do that, Bill, and rest assured: your cutlery's pondering you.

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