“I think, therefore I am,” proclaimed René Descartes.
The reality of our existence is a topic that has intrigued philosophers across the ages. Whereas Aristotle and his followers accorded great importance to knowledge derived from the senses, Descartes argued that the senses could deceive us even in matters that were most taken for granted. An omnipotent being, he suggested, could be manipulating our perceptions to make non-existent objects and even basic mathematical patterns feel real. The one thing we cannot doubt, though, is our act of thinking, and thinking signifies our existence.
Even so, what exactly does this existence amount to, beyond the presence of our minds? Back in the third century B.C., Oriental philosopher Zhuangzi recounted a dream of himself fluttering about as a carefree butterfly, unaware that he was originally a man. Ever the iconoclast, he wondered if the dream was actually reality and the reality he experienced after waking up the mere imagination of a butterfly dreaming of being a man. Painting a more despondent picture, contemporary scholar Hillary Putnam asked if we are brains kept alive in a vat of nutrients, and all our perceptions electronic pulses a supercomputer sends to our nerve endings, a hypothesis popularized by the motion picture The Matrix.
The irony though is that, as brains in a vat, our understanding of “brains” and “vat” would be limited to computer-fed notions of brains and vat, and thus our language may be inadequate for describing the unknowable situations we are in. So, perhaps, we can only speculate vaguely that we probably dwell in some indescribable hyper-reality different from the reality we perceive. Descartes, nevertheless, defended some of the reality we know by asserting that God, who must exist because he is so perfect that he could not have been a product of our imperfect minds, would not have deceived us about anything. Any misunderstanding on our part, he thought, is a result of our limited intellect. Descartes then made a distinction between knowledge deduced by reasoning and knowledge acquired by the senses (e.g. appearance of objects) or imagination, believing that reality more likely lies in the former than the latter.
In any case, the vast majority of us proceed with our lives as though they are real. In Hyde Jekyll, Me, though, this privilege and its associated peace of mind were not always available to Robin, the secondary personality of a man with dissociative identity disorder. Described by the host personality, Gu Seo-jin, as dreams he forgot after waking up, Robin was a crystallization of the former’s subconscious ideals and born as an escape from his emotional turmoil. From Robin’s perspective, however, the ideas and qualities he was conceived with were his entire world. Throughout the story, he empathized with Seo-jin’s traumatic past but did not personally identify with it. The suggestion that he was Seo-jin mortified him. Yet, even as a successful webtoon artist, Robin could not receive payments, register a web domain or purchase a workspace under the name he knew himself as. To protect Seo-jin’s career as a well-known corporate director, he had to keep his face secret and forsake awards events, leaving a trophy unclaimed.
An air of tragedy hung over the beginning and end of the existence Robin knew. Probably a reflection of Seo-jin’s wish for a warmer family life different from the frigid atmosphere in his chaebol home, Robin remembered growing up in a cosy traditional house with older siblings Seo-jin did not have and a mother who would give him a coin before heading to work every day. In his vivid mental images, he stored the coins in a container buried under an old tree. When his psychiatrist told him that all his childhood memories were illusions, he went to the site and dug frantically under the tree but could not find anything. The house belonged to another family and nobody with any of his family members’ names ever existed. Was he but a figment of another man’s imagination, a symptom of someone else’s illness? Could a fake person like him be loved for real?
In the eyes of his genial psychiatrist, the answer to the first question was definite. No matter how enchanting, warm-hearted and affectionate Robin was, he was a disease. And a tumor, however beautiful, must be removed. Robin’s generally joyful life, Seo-jin’s later desire to retain him, and their friends’ attachment to Robin did not alter this view. When the end to Robin’s existence was in sight, albeit not as a result of her therapy, he asked her with sad, limpid eyes, “Where do I go when I disappear? […] Do I not have a soul or a body to begin with?” Her only reply was an equally sad look.
Such medical attitudes are backed by many definitions of disease, which refer to it as an aberration from normal physiological or mental functions. In some respects, this distinction between normality and diseased states parallels that between reality and dreams. Normality and reality are the essence of life, whereas diseases and dreams are disposable, if not a must to dispose (imagine never waking up from a coma!). Entities that are normal and real are thought to embody strength compared to the specters that are diseases and dreams. The quest to eradicate diseases is thus similar to the quest to see through illusions—both are mankind’s grand attempts at restoring substance and weight to life. Onlookers tend to regard disease sufferers with pity and, maybe, a feeling of self-superiority. If we are brains in a vat, they are perhaps, to combine the languages of the drama and philosophical literature, “brain tumors in a vat.”
That association of medical conditions with inadequacy and feebleness probably induced the sensation of victory in the drama’s comic villain, a cousin competing with Seo-jin for the position of chief executive officer in their conglomerate, when he discovered Robin’s existence. To his frustration, however, all his attempts to expose this secret flopped spectacularly. For a start, he could not release recordings of confidential psychiatric consultations, so references to formal diagnoses were out of question. Yet, without an official medical label, there was barely anything that could demonstrate a problem with Seo-jin/Robin. Visits to mental health professionals are, strictly speaking, more evidence of proper mental hygiene than concrete signs of trouble. Many people have different sides to their personality, many individuals possess multiple talents, and many modern arts practitioners lead double lives to make ends meet. Both Seo-jin and Robin were also too capable and, of all adjectives, “normal” in their professional interactions to show why they warranted caution. They even learnt each other’s quirks to avoid suspicion. By the time he had the chance to challenge Seo-jin to an on-the-spot drawing in front of reporters, the two personas had already merged. At the end of the day, Seo-jin/Robin’s queer-sounding disorder was really very simple: an inability to remember both halves of his life simultaneously. For hilarious effects, the show presented the cousin with the psychiatrist’s card in the finale, its ultimate comeback to the quintessential drama villain: You, with your obsessive greed and jealousy, were the sick person.
Beyond comedic purposes, though, the sub-plot also provided some serious food for thought: Is not well-being more important than normality? Some disabled and terminally ill individuals, most famously sports writer-turned-educator Hirotada Ototake and academic Randy Pausch, have led rich and meaningful lives with optimism that far surpassed their disease-free peers. Many “ordinary” conditions like fear, envy and resentment, in contrast, lock supposedly healthy people in emotional prisons. As the World Health Organization noted, health is more than the absence of disease—it includes complete socioemotional well-being. Treatment regimes derived solely to return patients to normalcy may miss the larger picture, while the contrasting social attitudes towards diseased and normal states may result in common personal problems getting less attention than they deserve. Psychiatrist Andy Thomson, for instance, recalled the experience of a patient who noted that while antidepressants relieved her condition, she was still married to a horrible drunkard, the source of her pain, and the medication only forced her to tolerate him. While mental illness very often calls for serious medical attention, there is a possibility that in this case, the couple’s woes would have been more effectively resolved by counselling her husband, the more “normal” party.
At the root of the problem with obsession over biological norms and deviations from them is perhaps its detraction from holistic moral engagement with people. In sorting individuals like items in a factory production line, there is the risk of overlooking their comprehensive ethical and emotional needs and reducing them from subjects to objects. Yet if humans were mere thinking machines, as computers are, it would not matter whether they flourish or perish. It is when emotions are invested in them that their existence, even as dreaming butterflies or brains in a vat, is imbued with meaning. After Robin’s memories and traits blended into Seo-jin, the latter remarked to Robin’s girlfriend, Hana, “If you ask me now whether I am Gu Seo-jin or Robin, I have only one answer: I’m merely a man who has loved you, still loves you and yearns for love.” Or as Hana told Robin, in response to his second doubt, before he vanished, “You are real, because my love for you is real.”
I am loved, therefore I am.
A Butterfly Dream in a Brain in a Vat The Drama
16 thoughts on “A Beautiful Tumor”
Special thanks to many fellow bloggers for their expression of support in the prelude to this post:
“Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”
– Zhuangzi, On the Equality of Things (3rd Century BC)
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A profound post. And how does one ultimately learn this? the only answer I have found is in loving and being loved. Could one really understand, I wonder, what you are saying on a merely theoretical level?
We’re on the same frequency. I was thinking of writing a long response on self-love and – tada! – you raised that on your blog. I have always been concerned that people will walk away from this post with the idea that their existence is meaningless without external validation. On the contrary, love can also come from within.
Thank you for letting me know you understand. It’s reinforcin g.
Among other things, though, I must clarify that this site tends to take a broad perspective on societal issues, discussing how societies as a whole should react to phenomena, so the focus is rarely on the victim. Do not take things too personally.
PS: I would still like it if you wrote a post on the subject of self-love. I suspect I would find it enlightening – and strengthening too.
It happens (again!) that I am currently planning a post on a book which mentions that subject. I’ll see how things go.
I hope it goes well. I do understand, though, how one begins to develop a significant issue (like the economy and the welfare state, for instance?) and then one gets waylaid by the reality of daily life — things like computer crashes and other events that scream “ME! ME! ME!” and somehow manage to push everything else aside.
If nothing else, that’s already part and parcel of professional life. Was the culture in your academic field that different?
Whether the topic will be covered in the post depends on the depth it is covered in the book and its relevance to the drama.
Are the work of academics in my field largely driven by personal desires and experiences? Oh think about it! that’s not a black and white question, and being driven by personal experience is not necessarily suggestive of narrow-mindedness. Would it not be just as narrowing not to be influenced by personal experience? Or would a career that is not fired by an intrinsic desire to learn be one wit better than a career fired by the need for the money? I’ve often been worried by academics who are not fired by intrinsic motivations. I would argue it depends on what the motivations are: money? career advancement? learning? teaching? my students? a 3-month summer break?
So have I misunderstood your question? My answer seems too obvious to me for someone who writes a blog as perceptive as yours.
Why can’t a career be fired by a desire to serve something larger than yourself? Why can’t you inquire about the experiences of others instead of assuming that your experience applies to everyone? In other words, personal experiences can be taken into account but they should be subsumed under collective experiences.
Ah yes, I did misunderstand your initial question — just as, perhaps, you partially misunderstood my initial comment. I am adamantly committed to the principle that we must struggle to understand the experiences of others. It’s one of the ideas underlying the title of my blog: The Other I — the idea that there is always another point of view that is inevitably worth considering.
And cannot we be fired by a desire to serve something larger than oneself? YES! We are all in this together.
It’s interesting, though, that it is you, someone so well-acquainted with Eastern culture who brings up this question. I fear Western Christianity with its emphasis on individual salvation manages to emphasize the sanctity of the individual as a primary motivation driving commitment to the community (which in today’s globalized society, of course, is everyone). I suspect it too often limits our true appreciation and joy to what it means to me and my salvation.
One of the questions I have had for most of my professional career as a cognitive psychologist is the evolutionary value of our limited ability to directly experience an other’s consciousness. We do not need to be as trapped within our own consciousness as I think most of us Westerners are. But there are limits to our intuitions of others thoughts and feelings.
Perhaps death is a release from this cacoon. It is my hope.
And – I’m sure you will recognize what this – I’ve just written what have been my seminal thoughts for my next posts. As soon as I finish the urgent tasks the weather is finally permitting us in this part of the world to tackle in the garden.
You have not replied yet. Are the work of academics in your field largely driven by personal desires and experiences? That would be quite an insight, but also dangerous and suggestive of narrow-mindedness. Hopefully, that’s not true 😉