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When did we stop looking into mirrors?

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Jim Opionin by Jim Powers
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“There comes a time when you look into the mirror, and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. And then you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you stop looking in mirrors.” Tennessee Williams

I’ve spent years writing a sci-fi novel in my head based on a thought experiment first offered by Rene Descartes in 1641. While Descartes used an evil demon, Gilbert Harman updated it in 1973 by substituting a vat to replace the demon, and the Brain in a Vat thought experiment was born.

The idea of the experiment is that you are not actually a human being, but a brain floating in a vat filled with a nutritive substance to keep the brain alive. The brain is connected to a computer that is taking inputs from the brain and simulating your experiences. The conclusion is that there is no way for the brain to know the difference, whether it is in a skull or in a vat, so it can never determine whether anything it experiences is real, or just an illusion.

There have been novels and movies based on this concept. The 1999 movie The Matrix is probably the most well-known example. I have a novel (pun intended) twist to the story that I think would be a real hit. But I will never write that novel.

Not because I can’t technically write a novel. I have written millions of words in my 71 years. I know the process. Sit down and write two or three pages a day for a year, and you’ve got a novel. I’ve written to deadline for decades. I’ve won awards for my writing. So, what’s the problem? Self-awareness.

Untold numbers of people want to write novels. Many begin novel after novel that they never finish. Other’s complete the novel, but never show it to anyone. Still others never publish because they are just bad writers. And others just talk about writing a novel but never write the first word. They waste their time  because they have limited self-awareness. They have never developed the ability to see themselves clearly. They stopped looking into mirrors.

I would never write my sci-fi novel for the opposite reason. It would never sell and would be boring and technical. I’m very aware of my shortcomings where writing novels is concerned. 

I intellectualize everything, nerding out on technical details. I tend to think dispassionately about things, with limited emotion. I hate the required strained relationships and love interest conflicts that people expect in novels. They seem silly and contrived to me. I can suspend reality enough to enjoy some fiction books and movies, but it drives me nuts when they break the rules of the imaginary world the writer created. And it happens all the time.

The ability to see my shortcomings, to be self-aware, allows me to assess my own shortcomings more accurately and not simply accept at face value the world around me. To understand my strengths and weaknesses. Achieving self-awareness can be an uncomfortable process. It’s far easier to just stop looking at mirrors.

I don’t know objectively if I’m human, or just a Brain in a Vat because I can’t get outside my consciousness to examine its location. We are like a fish swimming in the water. 

Fish don’t know they’re in water. If you tried to explain it, they’d say, “Water? What’s water?” They’re so surrounded by it that it’s impossible to see. They can’t see it until they jump outside of it.  Derk Sivers

But we can’t jump out of our minds.

By becoming more self-aware, you work to understand what you believe and why you believe, and whether those beliefs affect you positively or negatively. As a result, you can judge the truth better based on whether what you are being told is consistent with your considered presuppositions. When you don’t know what you believe and why you believe it, it’s easy to fall for anything. We buy into lies and conspiracy theories because we don’t want to face the truth about ourselves and the world.

We don’t become self-aware by pretending to be perfect, though. We become self-aware by embracing the darkness we all have. And learning to avoid that darkness when it intrudes on living the live we want to live.

So, what conclusion did Descartes come to when he considered his version of the Brain in a Vat dilemma. You’ve probably read or heard the Latin expression cogito, ergo sum. Translated into English it means, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes concluded that the fact that he can question his existence is enough to prove that he does exist. It doesn’t prove, though, whether he exists in a human head or a vat.

And if you have trudged through all 800 or so words of this column, you now are clearly aware why my novel would never sell.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    American Voter · 1 years ago
    You are the reason I am reminded why I dumped the democrats like a bad ex. I will never ever vote democrat ever again. That I thank you for convincing me the decision I made a very long time ago. It was the right one I am 100% convinced I do not want to be you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    American Voter · 1 years ago
    I know for a fact based on real research on the internet and my knowledge of the democrats. Sure trump is a brash carpet bagger but a honest one tells the truth. Too bad I cannot say the same you having the guts to tell the whole truth. I did not think about it at the time.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    American Voter · 1 years ago
    I stopped believing the democrat jim crow kkk racist party lies over 30 years ago. I took a good long look in the and realized I did not want to be one of you. In your age you did not gain wisdom like I did and go to your grave telling the same lies. 
  • This commment is unpublished.
    American Voter · 1 years ago
    To: Jim

    I am glad you realize the truth about yourself and your racist jim crow party. I did not think any of you had the guts to admit what you are. I liked reading your "Things as they are"  but the bad news I am not the one under the jim crow kkk spell like you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bob · 1 years ago
    That was well written.