Wednesday, April 28, 2010

is man a machine?

Last night I was party to a number of exchanges in which all the usual things were said in all the usual ways. Given our emphasis on "going against habits," the habitual way in which things are said and expressed in the Gurdjieff work absolutely puzzles me.

Are any of us actually aware of how much we imitate each other, use the same expressions, and say the same things over and over again? "It seems to me..."

Anyway, one could go on and on about this. What it got me to pondering was yet another radical question, perhaps a heretical question, in light of the fact that it strikes directly at the heart of everything that is said in the Gurdjieff work.

In the spirit of questioning everything, I found myself asking, is man truly a machine?

We hear this said over and over again. People repeat it like parrots. We all take it for granted, and perhaps even use it as the skeleton upon which we erect a stolid framework of self observation: "I act like this; yes, I'm mechanical. I act like that; again, I'm mechanical."

In other words, we mechanically assume we are mechanical.

Am I engaging in deceitful rhetoric? I think not. We need to carefully examine this question of mechanicality and see what we actually understand about it (if anything), as opposed to what we have been told, or blithely assume.

I looked up the definition of the word "machine" in the handy dandy dictionary provided on the hard drive of my Apple computer. It says, "an apparatus using or applying mechanical power and having several parts, each with a definite function and together performing a particular task." The derivation of the term is 16th century, originally denoting a structure of any kind; the original root is from a Greek word meaning "contrivance."

So far, so good. We are machines. But based on this definition, everything alive is a machine. The term becomes almost meaningless viewed from this point, because it is universal, not special. Indeed, that universalist definition is valid within the context of the Gurdjieff work; G. told Ouspensky that the entire universe is in fact a machine, which is essentially what Beelzebub told his grandson in the creation myth he presented. (The purpose of the machine was to overcome the effects of the merciless Heropass... but that is another subject.)

My point here is that a term this generalized may not be that useful in understanding our position. One could just as easily say "we are made of minerals." What does that actually tell us?

The term does not denote a "special" or alterable condition; it is an inalienable property of everything we call the material world. Our option is not to escape or rise above our mechanical nature. We don't have that choice. All we can do is place ourselves in conditions where we find ourselves under more or less laws. Assuming we accept the premise, even if a man moved an entire notch up the ladder, so to speak, he would still find himself to be a machine under 24 laws, instead of the 48 we are currently under.

The issue here, ultimately, is that the term "machine" is (rather sloppily, I think) more or less used as a form of Gurdjieffian shorthand to refer to the idea that we are not "awake."

That is, it is assumed to have something to do with our consciousness. We presume that machines have no consciousness. That is one default understanding of machines in the modern world.

For example, I look at my automobile. It can't think. Furthermore, I think we can reasonably presume, it never will think. It won't love its children. It can't even move around unless I press the gas pedal. So there you are. It is a machine.

But I am I like that?

I submit to you, dear readers, I am not like that. Something else is going on here. Those of you who think you are cars can stop reading here, but for the rest of us, we need to continue to examine this question of just what we are in relationship to the question of machines and consciousness.

In regard to this matter of consciousness and levels, we run into more questions. Gurdjieff emphatically stated that everything was alive, and that one had to go down to an almost unimaginably low level to find something that was not alive. Furthermore, there are multiple degrees and levels of consciousness, and although an entity might find itself under 192 laws (which is presumably rock bottom), this does not of necessity mean there is no consciousness whatsoever there.

In other words, this habit of referring to ourselves as machines, or completely unconscious automatons, is a habit, not an accurate fact. Like everything else we think and do, it comes straight out of the associative mind, that is, it is superficial.

We might even say that we have all agreed together that it is true so that we won't have to think about it anymore.

And this alarming thought makes me ask, how many other things are there like this in our work?

It might be more accurate to state that we have some qualities that are machinelike, and other qualities that clearly display other potentials. We are a blend: not one thing, not the other. But above all, we should not submit ourselves to habitual thinking or pessimism and paint ourselves into a corner where we think all we have available to us is this property of being a machine.

These questions, which could be expanded on at much greater length, are just the introduction to a rich intellectual exploration of the question of just what it means to be (or not to be) a machine, and how little time we spend examining the question from multiple points of view. The question itself ought to be challenged from every direction. It is by keeping the question of whether or not we are a machine alive in front of us that we discover ourselves actually living--whether mechanically or not.

The arguments, of course, are strictly theoretical up until this point. Now we can examine some experiential points of view.

I live within this life. I breathe, I walk, I speak -- I see the leaves on the trees and I hear the birds. The sunlight comes through the marsh in the early morning. I am here with this; it is here with me. It is not dead; it is not without consciousness; it is not a car that just sits in the driveway until someone puts its foot on the pedal. I have the capacity to love, to feel, to sense, to think -- my computer cannot do these things. My fingernail clipper can't do them either. Nor can my power mower or the looms I see in textile factories.

So I am not actually a machine -- certainly not in that way, anyway.

This means that my assumptions about what it means to be a machine have to be questioned. And above all, if I am going to investigate the question of being a machine, it needs to take place from a new and fresh point of view, not one dominated by my associations.

It has to be asked in a much larger context -- a cosmological context, in which I discover that my mechanical nature is in fact inescapable, and exactly what offers me all the potential that I have in this universe, which is also a machine.

I am trying to live, to be more aware. That is to say, I am trying to insert myself into the machine as a working part that participates properly, not reach some ephemeral or imaginary state of "freedom" in which I am no longer a machine.

Is this a subversion or reconfiguration of what Gurdjieff taught? I don't think so. I think, in fact, that it is utterly doctrinaire -- just not doctrinaire in the way that we usually assume things have to be doctrinaire.

So in a certain sense, by questioning and even rejecting the premise that we are machines, I come around to the experience of my own life -- which is where I always ought to try and be anyway -- and discover that the idea of being a machine is not one that contracts me into a limited range of possibilities, but rather one that expands my possibilities into a range that (excuse the hyperbole) spans universes.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.


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