Am I Just A Brain In A Vat?
One of the relatively few things I enjoyed about studying Philosophy (I capitalise it to ironically reflect how little I have capitalised on it in life) at university, apart from the six hours of lectures in the final year, was that it occasionally struck me as an exercise in science fiction. It is incredibly difficult, perhaps even wholly unknowable, to get a sense of another person’s mind. We generally work on the assumption that other folk are much the same as us. This is quite reasonable, and is totally backed up by our being practically the same biologically. It works most of the time perfectly well – people do more or less what we expect them to do and they respond in recognisable ways to similar triggers.
We get really lazy quickly though, and before we know it someone has ‘acted out of character’ – that’s essentially stating that the lazily compiled model of another person has shown an alarming degree of free will and done what they wanted to rather than what we thought they should do. I suppose it’s a kind of arrogance, to imagine that we can profile another in such a way. I’ve always found those moments on television where a neighbour says “they were such lovely people, I can’t believe that they…” very strange. Why would you think that you know someone else at all? Do they so rarely oppose your expectations that you feel utterly content in their presence, never fearing that they might suddenly come at you with a knife?
I’m Hiding Behind The Bottle, Waiting To Shank You
Aren’t you crouching inside your own mind, intentionally displaying only that set of feelings and actions which you expect will conform to the model that you believe another person has for you? I remember lying awake almost all night when I was about thirteen and a friend was staying over, crashing on the fold-up bed in my room. I had convinced myself, utterly, that he was going to turn into something else (a werewolf I think) in the night and savage me. It lead to the somewhat creepy watching him as he slept, in case the change was sudden and would literally happen in the blink of an eye. The fear of turning back and finding a slavering man-wolf face looking at me was surprisingly strong. I knew this guy well (as well as you know another thirteen year old) and yet had the complete expectation that he was hiding something; or rather he was not all that he seemed. It’s not that he was hiding something, he just hadn’t told me he was a werewolf.
That’s fair enough – we don’t tell each other everything. We give enough that other people’s models can predict our behaviour and responses well enough that the part they themselves play fits into our model and we attain a nice balanced relationship. We usually avoid the especially volatile and unpredictable. Not because we don’t like them, but the difficulty in modelling their behaviour is frankly too much effort. It’s also hard to imagine how they might reflect upon us. Perhaps that apparent volatility (and ‘apparent’ because if we knew them better we would find it less volatile) is an indication that they struggle to model us inside their minds. Their activities then are less random than they appear – having only a partial grasp of someone it’s difficult to behave in a consistent way.
You’re On Trial In Everyone
We constantly test out new acquaintances with ideas, preferences, jokes and physical offers to see which are appropriate, and in lucky cases, just how far the “normal” boundaries of each can be stretched. Some people can take sarcasm, others just cannot (tiresome I know) and we find that out quite quickly. I suppose we also show to some extent how much we value those individuals by whether we then stick to those boundaries. It takes effort to model others and remember what behaviours suit them. If we don’t care about them, why would we restrict our actions to what they expect.
That sounds exhausting. Thankfully we seem to do a lot of it automatically, but then that also makes it harder to figure out what’s gone wrong when people don’t act as we expect, or they get upset because we’ve acted out of character. Both of those states are the same of course – their model of us has been found incomplete, and (assuming we were intending to act within perceived boundaries) our model of them has been found incomplete. The whole thing is science fiction – we pretend that we’re normal, disguising our weirder or less socially acceptable aspects in order to ingratiate ourselves with a group that we perceive to have the characteristics and behaviour that we desire, ignoring that each individual in that group is doing exactly the same thing and hiding their unacceptable selves.
Inconclusive, Punch The Mirror
That’s quite a mess – sounds exactly like Replicant or clone or alien attempts to infiltrate our society. Except we’re infiltrating our own society at a one-to-one and one-to-many level, establishing intimate relationships as well as professional and social ones where the complexity of masks, mirrors and guises overlaps into a multi-selved cloak of imaginary intentions. Are we really all spies in each others’ lives? It feels like it sometimes.
I don’t know how we should feel when someone’s subterfuge is revealed and we glimpse the more complex beast they are underneath. I feel confused, as if I’ve been deceived. Perhaps I’ve just been protected from the worst – my image of them is a reflection of how much they were willing to share, or thought they could safely share. On which of us does that reflect? On them for hiding, or on me for not allowing them to be themselves?