Sharing the Now

A single person alone in a room might be tempted to be a solipsist. Raised in Western society, the solicitations of solipsism under such conditions are almost irresistible. If such a person were to employ the everyday Cartesian language with which we describe experience, there would be a dead inanimate room, represented and hence observed by the mind of the person. Experience may seem to be the result of perception, constructed on the basis of the senses, which is complemented with unobservable stuff loosely described as memories, thoughts, reverie, imaginations and such. The sum of the private stuff, together with the rooms insistent existence, comprises the “now” for such a person.

Oddly, that same person, if told of two disasters that are indexed to very different points in time, will care greatly about one (a massacre, say, in contemporary Absurdlandia), but will be entirely unmoved by another (a similar massacre occurring, say, 400 years earlier). The person in the room is in no way capable of influencing either event. Yet one, by virtue of occurring contemporaneously (in calendar time) is an affront to humanity, the other is a historical detail.

Now let two persons occupy the same space. Let them talk and interact. Solipsism now retreats. In dialogue, we are much less prone to introspection. The “now” for one person is not clearly distinct from the “now” for the other. Everything done by one immediately, continually, and reciprocally affects the other. The room is more or less the same, though seen now from two vantage points, each with different sensibilities, aesthetic preferences, and histories. The two people share a “now”, and they do so by virtue of the reciprocal interaction. The utility of the notion of a distinct mind seems superfluous or misleading. If the interaction is spoken, we might speak of dialogue. Even if not, their corporeal co-presence ensures their non-independence. They are present to each other as I and Thou. If one hits his thumb, the other will be engaged, affected, and implicated in the resulting pain. The stories they tell will be constructed together.

The relationship of each of these persons to the two massacres is the same though. Each will care about the one that is contemporary in a way that is entirely different from the one that is historical. Why the enormous difference in moral sensibility?

The notions of contact and continuity seem to be important here. The shared “now” arises through continuous reciprocal contact among the pair. The now of the calendar that indexes the two massacres is constructed very differently. The scientific worldview grants reality to the events of calendar time. The two people are unlikely to question the reality of their experiences in the room. So somehow, there must be a mapping from one to the other. This hiatus that separates one (experience of two people in a room) to the other (events indexed by calendar time) is largely ignored by leaning on the unsteady crutches of psychology. But it is necessary to account for the great moral disparity we see. That events in calendar time share reality with the experience of two people in a room is, in fact, something of a leap of faith. It is the long history of increasingly refined techniques of measurement that provides our pair with a sense of continuity with the contemporary massacre, a sense that is absent from the historical one. Yet the many measurements, readings, and leaps necessary to connect them to one or the other are equally complex, mediated, indirect.

Events happening in parts of the contemporary world they know nothing about, or from which do not receive news in speedy fashion, more closely resemble the historical case. They seem to be less present.

If we are to occupy a single world, we must learn more about how we share the “now” through dialogue.