The particularities of reality
I’ve lately been mulling over how very particular reality is: we never see a “chair,” but only specific chairs, each with its own unique history and set of mars and scratches. We don’t see a child, only specific children, each one completely unique, with his or her own life story, relatives, personalities, and so on. It’s quite noticeable with people who have cats as pets: each kitty seems to arrive with a unique personality, very unlike other kitties in all details, though similar in many respects (a tendency to nap, for example).
I enjoy science fiction and like time-travel stories, but when I think of actually returning to an earlier time, everything falls apart very quickly. The immediate picture is of oneself arriving (with some wealth, why not?) and amazing people. But then: how does one know the language and the customs of the times? Things change relatively quickly, and what is acceptable in one place and time can trigger big trouble in another. I once read a piece on how someone from today would fare in, say, England of a millennium ago: not well. The article (or story—at this point I don’t recall) recounted how many laws the modern visitor would unknowingly break in the course of a day.
And of course the web and net of acquaintanceship would undermine the visitor from another time, because what is always important to humans is whom you know and who knows you, who are your relatives and family, who are your friends and co-workers. We want to place people within the social framework with connections to known individuals, and if that is not possible, the isolated person is not trusted—but of course, any time traveler would immediately upon arrival begin to be enmeshed in particularities: the person who first observed the traveler, who first spoke with him or her, and going outward from there, fixing the novelty within the specific intermeshed linkages of the real.
All reality has this quality of great particularity. It’s only our minds that cluster particulars together and work with general terms rather than specific reality.
Samantha Smithstein recently had a column in the SF Examiner on how we thirst for wholeness. From the column:
In his correspondence with Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, the psychologist Carl Jung stated his opinion that craving for alcohol was really “the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness.” In their book on Maharishi Ayur-Veda, Transcendental Meditation, and treatment of addiction, authors David O’Connell and Charles Alexander state that in addition to genetics and physiology,“addiction arises from the ‘mistake of the intellect,’ known as pragyaparadha, in which one perceives one’s self not in terms of the wholeness of pure consciousness (the Self), but rather as a highly limited individual personality burdened with conflicting impulses and feelings, cut off from the wholeness of pure consciousness.” . . .
Even without attributing consciousness to reality, it’s certainly clear that in our minds we spend much time preoccupied with things at a more general level. I commented on the column:
I’ve been thinking recently that the disconnectedness is the tendency of people to leave particularities in favor of generalities. General terms are easier to work with, and laws and edicts are at the general level: applying to all equally. And yet our daily experience and we ourselves are of a most incredible *particularness*, unique, unduplicatable, and fractal in every aspect. And so for every other one to which these general laws apply.
The point is that if one starts “living” (as it were) among the general, thinking in general terms, coming to general conclusions, etc., one becomes disconnected from reality, which consists (so far as I can tell) of an infinity of particularities. Some forms of meditation focus on the particularity of a stone one holds, for example, and that sort of thing may be a form of reconnection. Certainly it seems that in moments of the kind of meditation that comes with “flow” one is highly aware of and completely focused on the particularities at hand—e.g., in climbing a rock face, one is intensely aware not of cliffs in general, nor even this cliff as an example, but *this part right here*, studied in all its particularity to figure out the best route.
So perhaps these reconnections with the particularities of which reality is constituted helps connect us again to our own “real” lives.
I was reminded of this last night on reading in New Scientist a review by Linda Geddes of The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the digital revolution will create better health care, by Eric Topol. She writes:
BY THE end of this book, geneticist Eric Topol explains his intent has not been to provide a “techno-tour” of how the digital revolution will change healthcare. From the title, that’s what I had expected. Instead, I got an eye-opening account of why conventional medicine is doomed.
According to Topol, modern medicine’s focus on the population rather than the individual may be damaging our health. He describes how mass screening for breast or prostate cancer often falsely identifies people who don’t have the disease, leading to unnecessary interventions and worry, and how Plavix, an anticoagulant that is the second-most prescribed drug in the world, is ineffective in 30 per cent of people and can even raise their risk of blood clots.
It’s compelling stuff. Even if they don’t cause harm, drugs often don’t benefit most of the people who take them. Take Lipitor, a statin advertised as reducing the risk of heart attack by 36 per cent. Pfizer isn’t lying with this claim, but closer reading reveals 2 per cent of patients taking Lipitor had heart attacks, compared with 3 per cent taking a placebo – or just 1 in 100 people will avoid a heart attack by taking the drug. Topol slaps you in the face with facts like these and shouts: “wake-up!”
The answer, he says, lies in technologies that tailor medicine to the individual – something that has long been talked about, but which is finally almost within reach. Almost, because although Topol tells some incredible tales of individuals with unexplained diseases having their genomes sequenced to find a cure, they remain in a minority. Individualised medicine for the masses is still a long way off, and although Topol provides a seductive vision of the future, he is vague on just how we get there. . .
Continue reading. Reality does seem to consist of an infinitude of particularities, and we ourselves exemplify that in every way: the particularities of our genetic make-up, our life experiences—illnesses, accomplishments, acquaintances, preferences: the whole ball of wax. And that requires consideration of our uniqueness not only in medical treatment, but in education and other spheres. “YMMV” is not restricted to shaving products.
UPDATE: It occurs to me that perhaps an open fire or a fountain is so mesmerizing is that we are fascinated by the unique particularities of the flames and embers in on or the falling droplets of water in the other: very specific, very particular, and changing constantly.