Am I the only consciousness among the flapping meat sacks? The Escalating Volume of Existential Terror

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Rachel Shadoan
By: rcferdin – CC BY 2.0
By: rcferdinCC BY 2.0

Sometimes, my partner Zack and I do not understand each other. This makes sense, given the complexity and inexact nature of language; I would go so far as to say it is part of The Human Condition. But there's a particular misunderstanding that we have that I have also seen other people have. I call it "The Escalating Volume of Existential Terror."

It starts innocuously enough. Person A says something, with the expectation that their conversational partner, Person B, will understand and respond in a particular manner. Person B, though, breaks from the expected response — a significant divergence from Person A's expectations!

To Person A, Person B's response makes no sense. Clearly, B just didn't understand. So A repeats what they had said initially, but with more insistence, and perhaps slightly louder.

B, unsure why A is repeating themselves when B had already responded, assumes that A just didn't understand the response. So B repeats themselves, more insistently, and slightly louder.

At this point, A is getting flustered. Why isn't B getting it? Are they messing with A on purpose? Are they being willfully ignorant? What is going on? A repeats themselves again, perhaps rephrased, but louder and with indignation.

B hears the indignation and the raised volume and can't figure out why A is suddenly shouting at them. B has already told them that they asked for! B shouts back some version of their original response, perplexed and frustrated.

Usually, that's where we break the conversation off; it becomes apparent that we have misunderstood each other and need to re-assess our assumptions about whatever it was we were trying to communicate about.

I have a hypothesis about why this particular pattern shows up. I think it's an expression of existential terror.

See, we're all consciousnesses trapped in poorly documented flapping meat sacks. Well, I say that we all are — I can only directly experience my own consciousness. I have to infer the existence of your consciousnesses from our interactions.

The above pattern of misunderstanding occurs, I believe, when we come face to face with the horrifying realization that our inferences could be wrong. We don't have any concrete evidence that the other flapping meat sacks have consciousnesses inside them. All of our previous communications with the other flapping meat sacks could be statistical anomalies; like a coin coming up heads thousands of times in a row. Improbable, of course, but not impossible!

The panic starts to rise. What if no one ever understands us again? What if we really are the only consciousness? What does that even mean for our lives?

My consciousness can't even conceive of a way forward if it is the only consciousness among the flapping meat sacks. Just writing about the possibility makes me feel anxious; in the moment, staring down the fact that everything we have always assumed about the beings around us may in fact be wrong, it is difficult to make a rational plan that is not "become a gibbering mess." Instead, we cling to the tattered foundation of our inferences. If only we say it again, the other flapping meat sack will demonstrate that it is also controlled by a consciousness! Yes, saying it again will definitely work!

Of course, the consciousness controlling the other flapping meat sack in the conversation is having a similar experience. They, too, think, that perhaps if they just say it again, you will provide evidence that validates their belief that they are not the only consciousness.

The volumes rise with the panic, until one consciousness or the other manages to convince themselves that they are just being silly. Of course there are other consciousnesses controlling the flapping meat sacks. Of course. Misunderstandings happen all the time. Surely. The terror of the prospect of being well and truly alone in the universe fades. The comforting familiarity of the shared reality shifts back into focus — no sense in peeking behind the curtains. Both flapping meat sacks take a deep breath or two. It's going to be okay.

And it is going to be okay. Communication, though tricky, is not an impossibility. Understanding, though hard sometimes, is not out of reach. We're not alone; you are not the only consciousness piloting a flapping meat sack.

At least, I'm pretty sure you're not.

  1. I think we have such huge expectations about communication with partners, that with them we will be truly understood etc etc that it really exacerbates the effect you are talking about, which of course can happen between any pair of humans. Its feels so much worse to be misunderstood by your partner than to be misunderstood by a shop clerk, bus driver or someone else you don't have an intimate relationship with, when really it’s probably not that much less likely.

    My relationship with my wife is conducted in English but it’s not her first language, we have a LOT of these moments! But in some ways I think that the bilingual communication issues are in fact helpful, they certainly limit or keep a check on expectations of perfect communication although I can’t claim this knowledge in any way reduces the occasional moments of utter tear wrecked frustration….

    It’s utterly isolating not to be understood and not to be able to communicate but I do think that so often the breakthrough when it works again, it in its imperfect way, occurs exactly when you give up on it, or another way, when you lower your expectations.

  2. I know this feeling. My worries stem less from Solipsism and more from a general existential angst. For example, cut flowers always remind me that like the flower, we are already on our downward spiral toward meaningless death. AAAAAHHHHHH! It's really not as depressing as it sounds, but my husband doesn't buy my flowers anymore! When I see cut flowers, I turn into Hans Beinhold, the pretend German ambassador from the Colbert Report.

  3. I love this title, although I kind of thought the essay was going in a slightly different direction.
    On the literal side of things, the type of misunderstanding described frustrates the shit out of me. If I feel like something I've said wasn't understood the way I intended, I try to rephrase or word things differently. Unless we're in a noisy room or something, I assume the person I'm talking to heard me, they just didn't quite put together what I was trying to convey. Even though I know it's an overreaction to what is surely just a personal communication style, the people who just repeat themselves verbatim piss me off. For better or for worse I have some strong feelings about this, there are some people very close to me in my life who communicate this way, and the repeating just frustrates me to no end. It gets me so mad that I don't see it as existential terror, I see it as arrogance on the part of the person repeating themselves, clearly they believe their words in their order are the only correct and logical way to try to make themselves understood, any failure to comprehend is a shortcoming of whomever they're talking to. Ugh, I know this is irrational, but like I said, this is a big thing for me.
    On the completely different note, the title immediately made me think of one of my favorite little pieces of internet literature:
    http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/atoz/secretworld.php
    I've had that essay bookmarked for probably 10 years now. Every time I read it it reminds me that everyone is a real person, regardless of the role I assign them in my life. It helps me be more mindful in my interactions, and I enjoy it every time I go back to reread it. It actually is a little similar to the philosophy of this post, it looks on the other side of the fear and misunderstandings towards the adventure and risks taken to connect with people on a human level.

  4. A dear friend and I used to get into long and boring (to our other friends, but not to us) arguments on various philosophical and spiritual topics. Neither of us could fathom why the other, obviously a thoughtful and intelligent person or we would not put up with them, could be so very wrong. 🙂 Finally my dear friend had an "A-Ha!" moment and asked me exactly what I meant by "Term A" that we had been debating. When I defined my terms, we discovered we had both been arguing the same side for the last half hour or more. Our mutual friends called us idiots and turned the conversation to choosing a place to go eat dinner and arguing about vegetarian options at various places (boring!).
    Now that we get to the "What do you mean by X?" within the first few moments of a discussion and have far fewer disagreements – much to the relief of the rest of our circle of friends.

  5. I've never thought about it that way. My husband sometimes gets wound up when we misunderstand each other, usually because one of us made an incorrect assumption about where the other was starting from. Then he gets more wound up when I tell him to just accept that sometimes this happens, it doesn't mean I wasn't listening etc, and human communications have this stupid way of sometimes going wrong. We mainly seem to get shirty with each other because of that difference rather than any existential angst, tho.

  6. If you are ever interested in studying how/why interactions like this happen, study Social Psychology. It is freakin fascinating.

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