This blog contains effusive rhetoric and profligate diatribes. Read at your own risk.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Impossible Dream

The inestimable Douglas Adams included an interesting idea in his most famous novel, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"; he said that human beings are capable of flying, but that it almost never happens because in order to fly, you have to "throw yourself at the ground but accidentally miss". He emphasizes that you can't miss on purpose; you have to be trying your best to splatter yourself against the earth and coincidentally fail. Which creates an interesting implication - in deliberately trying to get yourself killed, but failing through no fault of your own, you can do the impossible.

The idea is rather similar to something you see happen a lot in a more widely popular medium: Hanna-Barbera cartoons, most commonly those featuring Wile E. Coyote. In these cartoons, it is quite common for a character who is intent on some mission to walk off the edge of a cliff and travel effortlessly along a path through the air, only abruptly falling when he suddenly realizes he's left the comfort of solid ground. Like the Douglas Adams version, this theory of subjective gravity emphasizes that you can't deliberately remain in midair, but rather can fail to notice that you're doing so, and thus not have to answer to the gravity you're not currently aware of. These two fictions can teach us an important fact.

It may not be possible to defy gravity through absent-mindedness, but it is possible to go to sleep (despite all the evidence to the contrary which I am currently presenting, as I write this three hours after the latest I should normally have turned in for the day so as to maintain my nocturnal schedule). And going to sleep means withdrawing your consciousness from the external reality, entering the realm of dreams, a plane of the miraculous where you can do anything you can imagine and nothing can permanently harm you (there are a few downsides, involving lack of conscious volition and possible a certain blunting of sensory input, but overall the majority of people seem to find their dreams more or less pleasant most of the time, and those who take the time to cultivate lucid dreaming skills can find the experience even more rewarding). Much as with freedom from gravity, freedom from consciousness of the external universe is a liberating and immensely rewarding experience - and impossible to do on command.

As pointed out in the movie "Inception", no one ever notices the beginning of a dream. In order to dream, you must first let your mind go blank; only after that does your brain begin rebuilding your consciousness for the day, starting with the aimless experiences of dreams which keep you occupied until your thought processes fully reactivate, and can be used to propel your waking body again. You can't just suddenly decide to dream; all you can decide to do is try to turn off your mind and wait for the dream to form around you before pulling you into it mid-scene. And turning your brain off and sleeping, like missing the ground and flying, is something you cannot do on purpose. You have to wait until your attention wanders of its own accord, and not notice that you're busy being awake, just like Wile E. Coyote needs to not notice he's left the ground. As you attempt to drift off, every flicker of sensory input other than darkness, white noise, and minor body awareness threatens to slam you back into your body, just like gravity slamming Coyote into the ground; there is, therefore, a certain element of Luck involved in the fact that we ever get to sleep at all.

I've not yet mentioned my personal religion on this blog, I don't think; time to fix that. I don't try too hard to convince others to believe as I do, and I certainly don't want to make other people worship my particular gods; they are totems I picked out from various world religions because I had a personal appreciation for what they represent. But I think most people could do worse than to consider the central tenet of my spirituality: the gods exist only in your mind, and that is where all their power must operate. Regardless of what you call God, he almost certainly can't lift a rock for you, and He very probably can't change an enemy into a friend, but one thing He might be able to do is change your mind, since that's where He lives. Since you are His host, he won't start moving your mental funiture around without your permission, but if you ask Him (or Her; I find that my desire to worship anything without breasts is never terribly strong) to help you out with some task that involves only your own mind, He might be able to do something. Technically, it's you that's doing it - even the atheists can get in on this form of prayer, because it doesn't require any belief, although the non-volitional mind of the faithful may be helpful for the same reason that a short attention span helps Wile E. Coyote to delay his pratfalls. But whether it involves faith or not, the action of focusing on a living symbol such as a deity may be helpful in achieving some of these frustratingly impossible-to-guarantee tasks that Life throws our way.

So if we need Luck to find our way to Dreamland, and God exists only in our mind, then guess what? Lady Luck is a Goddess, She can live in you if you want Her to, and maybe, just maybe, she can help you get the Luck you need.

Sweet dreams.