As I was trying to finish my thesis last year, a number of things came together in a tumultuous mess. Trying to point to one particular cause would be incorrect. It was a concoction of, amongst other things, intense anxiety and stress (the thesis serving as catalyst to dig up material for an early mid-life crisis or quarter life crisis or something), generally too much thinking, too little sleeping, and too much grappling with humanity’s madness. And the result was brief personal madness.
There are many things I can call it, anything from a religious experience or “a meeting with God”, to a “nihilistic experience”, or maybe a particularly vivid and high-impact existential crisis, or we can use psychological terms and say I went a little crazy. A few days afterwards, I was already thinking of myself as a post-nihilist (not a label for a particular philosophical position, rather a statement claiming recovery from nihilism, by whatever method, having had a physical experience of nihilism). Now I guess one should be careful to not do a disservice to the truly insane by willy-nilly claiming insanity for whatever weird thoughts crosses one’s mind, but I suspect calling it a brief psychotic episode might be rather accurate.
Despite it being a bad idea to try to identify any particular cause, there was one particular “last straw” that I think was instrumental in tipping the scales. It was on a Thursday. I went to speak to the post-graduate coordinator of our department, about overshooting my “final deadline” by a few days, and also to discuss my experience as post-graduate student (on encouragement from family members that were deep into the academia in the past).
Now much of my delays in getting my thesis finished were related to my grappling with religion and the problem of fundamentalism in Stellenbosch. For my personality, the problem may be that I worked myself into the wrong social circles: the most healthy for me and my thesis may have been to break contact and ignore fundamentalism’s existence, but due to the particular place I found myself in society, that didn’t feel like an option. The post-graduate coordinator is a very, very nice person, I felt comfortable talking to him. I felt a sense of trust, to the point that I wanted to open up a bit… Taking one step in that direction, I got crushed by a tonne of bricks. Not that that’s really the ideal metaphor. The better one, for those that know what I’m talking about anyway: it was a total twilight-zone experience: it turned out the coordinator was himself in Shofar…
I don’t know how exactly to share the psychological impact of that particular revelation… the similes I can come up with from fiction I can think of, are simply too negative: the focus should be on the experience of the character in question, rather than the exact nature of the revelation. I suppose I could write a short story some time in an attempt to sketch it out, creating a situation in which the main character has a similar experience that the reader can identify with. Pity it’s hard to justify spending the time. In any case, at that point, the nature of human culture/reality as an insane loop of circular reasoning with no hope of escape started spinning around in my head.
Any somewhat successful attempt to make complete sense of it all, other than accepting that humans are just plain weird and irrational creatures and pretty much wrong most of the time, necessarily results in a conspiracy theory of some sort. But that’s where my mind started heading, recognising patterns throughout human culture, making strange connections between what ordinary people said to me in the following 36 hours… my mind made connections all over the place, in places there shouldn’t be connections, reading “between the lines”, working itself into a new narrative for reality that draws on pretty much every story it could remember. (Little fragments of this process is demonstrated in the posts I made around that time.) Chances are, if you said something to me during that time period, I read something else into it.
It culminated in a paranoid delusional climax on the Saturday, which was actually very exciting and exhilarating. It was like living in one of a number of movies. The main narratives my mind drew on for the connections/patterns/metaphors, were probably The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix. (Don’t read too much into it: they’re not ideal examples to the completely rational mind, you’d need to share or at least understand the delusion to fully understand the connections and metaphors they’d represent. )
Through all this, one particularly inspiring part was the rigours of the scientific method: it was one of the things that pulled me through. The scientific portion of my mind proved unsquashable, a piece of doubt shined as a shimmering light of hope: throughout, I also knew I might be in A Beautiful Mind, rather than The Matrix, and that I needed to remain skeptical, continually collecting evidence and testing my conspiracy theories. The first thing I did was to send off sms’s to likely candidates, with only the words: “Are you a ring bearer?”
Yay, science triumphs? Hmm, no, it’s not quite that simple when you’ve been pondering philosophy and things like solipsism and nihilism. (An interesting discovery as I was Googling to find the wikipedia link for solipsism: Solipsism syndrome. Maybe not a high quality article, with enough warnings for the reader, but interesting nonetheless.) Science is as dependent upon some fundamental axioms as any other philosophy, and solipsism is effectively internally consistent. It isn’t possible to test or disprove it, so science per se is not the way out. What eventually grounded me? A leap of faith, a choice to accept my senses, to accept empiricism.
As such, I know I still can’t disprove whether there was another choice (a choice other than choosing to accept my senses and empirical reality, i.e. other than take the blue pill). The paranoid-delusional idea as to what the effects of taking the red pill would be, was this: “they” would come fetch me — my mind, my conscious self, anyway — so my mind would leave this reality, to go to the next. In this reality, my body would most likely remain behind in a catatonic state…
Why did I choose blue (this reality), rather than red (some other reality, observed as “going insane” to the people I leave behind)? A number of things… Partly because of what it would do to the people I know and love and leave behind (my mother, my sister), partly because of the question a voice “boomed in my ear”: “What more do you want, mortal?! Is this reality not good enough for you? What makes you think the next is better? Why the dissatisfaction? Will you ever be satisfied?” (No, there weren’t any real hallucinations, I was quite aware that this was just an idea in my own mind, ‘scuse the poetic license.) And then Ewan McGregor advising Choose Life. (I didn’t choose something else.)
Accepting this reality rather than continually looking for another in perpetual dissatisfaction, was advice I had picked up from numerous sources. One was a stupid joke where a guy was climbing a ladder to “seventh heaven” or something, which turned out much worse than any of the preceding six — the first six were all wonderful. Another was The Matrix trilogy et al — so NB the sequels (echoing ideas from The Thirteenth Floor, or any similar recursive-reality story). Besides, in terms of “another reality” being detached from this one, I decided it would not share this reality’s time axis either, so there’s really no rush to go there anyway. The “Choose Life” quote of course comes from Trainspotting (a movie I still want to see… who wants to watch it with me?).
Finishing the Thesis
I got myself grounded in reality again on Monday. I maintained some sense of apathy and indifference, potentially a latent effect of Solipsism syndrome, but it was useful: it helped me to not care too much, to reject perfectionism, resulting in a highly productive final spurt to finish my thesis that week, aided by trance music (Infected Mushroom) that I found particularly humorous, due to it’s echoing of a number of the ideas that ran through my head with regards to recursive reality, choosing peaceful coexistence (with reality et al), etc.
Of course, this choice between this reality and another is all a battle in the mind of a person about-to-go-insane (or perceiving himself as such, that being part of the delusion, probably). This post is written from that perspective, describing what led to the choice for sanity (as if that was a choice) — this post is not suggesting that there is any other reality.
My epistemological position is a thoroughly scientific one. While the solipsist says all that he can know to exist is his own mind — a position that correctly recognises the unreliability of senses — that’s no way to live a life. It gets you nowhere. So I accept empiricism, “try it and see”, and I use the scientific method to get around the problem of untrustworthy senses (and interpretation is an integral part of sensing).
To the Woo’s
So that then describes the reality that now governs the world in my vicinity: if my acceptance of evidence and scientific method manifests as “skeptical energy that kills your magical powers when you’re in my presence” (like some claimants of paranormal powers complain, as an effective excuse to avoid being properly tested and thereby debunked), I must apologise, but I’ve found this approach serves me well. And if your reality can’t beat mine, why not then rather join me in mine? I find life to be quite sweet in my reality.
So that’s probably the first more detailed account of my interesting experiences late last year. The first post I made about it was Psychological Wierdness. Read that for the first take on this episode.