On a relatively rare day of uninterrupted sunshine during these closing stages of the summer, I took a walk through and out of the village. On my way up Tenter Hill I walked past the row of three of the oldest Bramham cottages, and then on the right, the similarly ancient Westwoods Cottage, with walls getting on for a meter thick. It was the cottage my Dad used to live in. I remember how it was in the 1990s. Alighting here, 25 years later, the same shell is recognisable but it’s been transformed. All the wild growth in the garden has been cut back and fenced off, the trees have gone to open up the lawn, and the house itself has new windows and doors. A new generation have come and brought their own life, their own designs. It looks really good. But because I remember how it was 25 years ago, it’s like a moment of time travel for me – a discontinuity in the succession of events. Because I saw the past when it was present, now I see the future.
Likewise back then I used to think of Westwoods Cottage as a kind of time machine into the past. I knew it was centuries old and would have been a labourer’s dwelling. It had small windows embedded into those very deep walls, such that you could reach into them. It felt like I was in some bucolic scene after the style of Bruegel. I remember a feeling like I was peeling off the layers to reveal a deeper time. Dad had told me that a previous resident had kept a horse out the back and they used to fill the water trough through a window in the front room. That man – his name was Harry - had kept a vegetable patch at the top of the garden and was a special constable in his spare time. The cottage therefore was the same shell as today but with a different life flowing through it.
On my walk I managed to bring together the various thoughts I’ve been trying to pin down recently in these little articles, and they seem to condense around two ideas, which I’ll try to summarise here:
1) That Consciousness is a hypothetical four-dimensional view. It depends upon something like a blueprint (a Platonic form) which covers multiple temporal points along a teleology.
2) That any one of us experiences consciousness in a kind of fragmented or fractional way – an imperfect image or imperfect knowledge. And that’s ok
I’m going to try to explain these two ideas more clearly for the remainder of this entry.
What do I understand by the word teleology? Things have a teleology where we perceive that they have a purpose or a design that they are progressing towards. We’re all very familiar with teleology.
An acorn’s purpose or design is to become an oak tree.
A recipe brings together multiple ingredients into a certain food or meal.
Here the teleology of the dough is to become a loaf of bread.
There are lots of nice material examples like these, where we can see through (or into) objects at a certain point in time, and perceive a timeline. Imagine other timelines such as a pregnancy, or the construction of a house. These timelines become hugely influential over the organisation of our thoughts, words, and actions – in other words they provide a structure for consciousness itself.
Here is a circle; here is a sphere:
What’s the difference? Just a bit of shading. The effect on our perception is to cause the two-dimensional object to come out of the page and become three-dimensional.
I think the perception of timelines is similar, except in this case we perceive a three-dimensional object and it too ‘comes out of the page’ and becomes a four-dimensional object i.e. we start to peer through time. This to me is the birth of what we experience as Consciousness.
We peer through the page – the present moment opens up like a concertina.
I think that at any one moment conscious experience is a symphony of multiple individual timelines - operating within their own frame of times - to create the moving picture show of our normal awareness. These individual timelines are like the multiple threads that make a tapestry, or the individual pixels that generate an image on the screen.
But different objects can be indexical to different people in different ways. For example an acorn might be perceived as giving way to oak, or as food for squirrels. In an ecology both are true and just demonstrate the way that we experience consciousness fractionally. This is a link then to the second idea.
Plato’s allegory of the cave speaks to this second idea, about consciousness being fragmented or fractional. Here is my rendition:
Imagine people who had been held captive in a cave for all their lives. They had been chained against one wall, and behind them, and outside of their field of view, a fire was burning. As the captors passed in front of the fire, carrying all sorts of objects with them, they cast shadows onto the wall visible to the captives. The captives began to recognise these various shapes, gave them names, and these various shapes and their relationships became the world – their entire reality. One day one of the captives escaped and saw with her own eyes the true objects that projected the shadows onto the cave wall. That escaped captive had perceived reality, and tries to explain to her fellow captives that what they believed was reality was actually only mere shadows of the true reality. But the fellow captives refute and resent her attempts.
My second idea is that we all understand the world through shadows but sometimes we gain access to structures of knowledge which can be transformative of our experience. Perhaps I can explain this with a few examples.
I continued my walk out of the village and into Bramham Park. It was a hot day and in the grass banks along my path was a loud chorus of chirruping, like I remember the crickets sounded when I was in Spain. I stopped to see if I could see one of these creatures and peered into the grass. And there it was: a grasshopper. I’ve never seen one in real life before – only in books.
It is thanks to the fabric of memory that I have some knowledge of its teleology. I knew that it was a living creature as opposed to a static feature of the blades of grass it was alighted on. I therefore knew it wouldn’t stay on that spot forever, that it needs to eat to survive, it will strive to reproduce and it will eventually die.
Other people in generations before my own have observed grasshoppers, recorded their behaviours, painstakingly sketched them, and wrote about them in nature books. That allows me to ‘know’ about them, in my own fragmented way, because of my participation in the fabric of memory. My knowledge is only a fraction of their knowledge.
A bit further along I walked past a beech tree with a huge trunk, unusually stood on its own at the corner of a field. As I peered upwards into it, about two thirds of the way up the trunk I noticed a swarm of bees in regular traffic around a hollow opening in the tree. It was a beehive. Again, I’ve never seen one before in real life. My first thought was about Winny the Pooh and the Honey Tree. (I’m not actually sure whether these were honey bees). And then I thought about actual bears climbing up to get the honey – wouldn’t they get stung? And how did they know the honey was there? I reasoned they must be able to smell the sugar. And it all felt like I was in some 18th century, pastoral scene. The only reason I knew what I was looking at was again because of popular representations – in nature books, TV and children’s stories. In other words my fragmented knowledge came about through my participation in the fabric of memory.
The next object which really grabbed my attention was, in a clearing beyond the path, a stone roundhouse, or rotunda, which looked like something out of Ancient Greece (I learned later that it was built according to the Ionic architectural order – which I had never heard of). I wanted to know the identity of the building and so pulled up a map of Bramham Park on my phone. Then all of a sudden I could see how everything was laid out – I discovered that I was walking along the North-Eastern tip of the park, and I could see where all the avenues led to. Where before I just saw winding paths and trees and grass, now I could impose a new structure onto what I could see. My immediate sensory experience became just one chunk (or fragment) of a much wider picture. I didn’t make this map, I have not charted these grounds, nor researched its history, but I was able to appreciate in my own imperfect way the author’s more perfect knowledge of the grounds.
In that way acquired memory is like a gift.
A couple of further examples spoke to my experience of temporality. On my way back I walked past a field of sheep. I remembered my own childhood – my family used to keep sheep. I was happy to see an agricultural tradition being continued. The flock looked healthy, thriving, which enabled me to peer into a hypothetical future: the tradition would continue into the coming days and years.
Then a single-engined plane caught my attention as it flew overhead. Like with the rotunda I couldn’t identify it. I recognised it as unusual – I thought of the Second World War and wondered whether it was one of those heritage planes. But from my instinctive knowledge of projectiles I knew it would continue in its trajectory beyond that moment. Others – including the pilot – would have a more perfect knowledge of the plane and its purpose, but for me I was content to experience the fragments.
In this way consciousness – little c, the ordinary consciousness that any of us experience moment to moment - can only ever be a fraction of Consciousness – note big C, a hypothetical perfect knowing or seeing. As Plato once said, a shadow only. But as I walked back down into the village, I found that a really comforting thought – my smallness within a huge natural architecture that I can only glimpse in fragments. It has a purpose that rolled on long before I came into consciousness and will continue to roll on long after my little purposes are done.
I was reminded of a Zen teaching about the Moon in the water, which I looked up when I got home. The following quote is attributed to Zen master Eihei Dogen:
Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.
I felt to be just one little dewdrop on one little blade of grass, within that huge Moonlit scene, and that felt ok.