Author Archives: tracerconstant

Consciousness Versus Momentum

Like the moment when the brakes lock
And you slide towards the big truck
Pink Floyd

This morning I fell down some stairs.

I was carrying a recycling tub overflowing with plastic bottles,  a small sack of cans mixed with bottles and cans perched  on top. The bag spilled, sending some of its contents cascading down the stairs. Oh, great, I thought, and started to resume walking when I tripped, taking me and the recycling tub tumbling down the stairs, banging into the door at the bottom that leads to the outside world.

I was more shaken up than hurt, though it could have easily been  the reverse.

During the fall, it felt like I had no control. And maybe I didn’t. Time feels weird during such episodes. I was aware of falling, or at last of knowing the fall was imminent.

No, that’s not quite right. Imminent seems to imply a time right before, offering a temporal window, albeit a narrow one, where a decision could be made. I think my awareness was when the fall actually began, the process already in motion. Regardless, where did it go during the whole fall? For being conscious seems to not only imply awareness to me, but some kind of agency as well. Yet, during the fall itself I was aware (or maybe half-aware?) of  the fall but unable to consciously do anything except let the momentum play out.

This does not mean necessarily that I did nothing. We have reflexes and instincts that kick in. Those two things can operate a lot more quickly than our consciousness, which is comparatively slow. In fact, so slow it might be a safety feature of our brain to rely on our training rather than our thinking in cases of potential bodily harm.

Think quick is a nice thought and part of our idiomatic vault when we throw an object to someone, but is thinking really involved in such cases. Or is that another example of reflexes kicking in based on how our bodies have been primed?

It certainly felt like there was nothing consciously that I could do during the fall. I was a passenger in my amusement park ride body. Presumably if it had been a longer fall, that would change. That my brain just needed more time to process things in order to generate a sufficient agency response.

Or would it have just been a longer ride?

The Art of Not Bitching

I’m trying to work on my not bitching.

I don’t think I do a particular lot of it  and I’m fairly stoic about most things. But it nevertheless creeps in, displaying as a jerk-ish comment,  commiserating gripe, or perhaps a common ground conversational piece.

Sometimes it’s over something petty, like the cash registers not yet being turned on when I want to buy coffee because the one person on the whole staff who has that magical power hasn’t showed up yet. Sometimes it’s something more significant, like when the leader of our country does… well, there’s a whole lot of bitch potential there.

And there’s also a lot of in-between: all the things that happen during the day-to-day to annoy my sense of what should and should not be the case.

Sometimes the bitch is justified. Sometimes it’s not. Maybe most times it’s not. But it doesn’t matter if it is or if it isn’t with respect to the question of To bitch or not to bitch.

I think the answer is one of effect rather than justification. And that’s how I’m trying to look at my life more: cause and effect. Look at it that way before good and bad, right and wrong, and other perhaps well-intended but somewhat vacuous, or at least subservient, terms.

I make a snide comment at the above store or rant on twitter or maybe just mutter to myself as the guy on the road cuts me off when I was doing “everything” right and he is “obviously” just being a–

But then what? The bitch, sure, but then what? What has it accomplished? How has it helped my situation? More to the point, how in the world could it help? There is no real action behind it.

I suppose I could talk to the manager directly about giving someone else the authority to turn on the registers, or bring a petition X to Twitter regarding Trump’s latest shoe drop, or get the license plate of the unsafe driver to report to whomever gets such reports.

But I will do none of those things. For when I start putting them into actionable terms, I force myself to face up to the fact that I was bitching just of the sake of bitching, without the intent of doing anything at all.

And that’s not how I want to live my life, and certainly not how I want to advise kids to live theirs.

Time is way too short to have on-paper-only beliefs and speak empty words.

If a belief doesn’t encourage you to take action, it’s a bullshit belief.

If a bitch doesn’t accomplish a damn thing, then it isn’t worth a damn.

We need to aim our bitching higher. We can’t remain satisfied with Facebook Likes and creating self-indulgent memes that go viral then evaporate. If there is something truly worth bitching about, then it’s truly worth the effort to try and fix it.

Which is exactly what I am trying to do, both with this post and myself.

Time as a Process

It’s a great time-killer

I’ve heard the phrase time-killer a lot. I have used it myself.

Often it seems to be used to mean something good. Something fun to do while maybe something not so fun is going on. But the last time I read it, in the context of a positive review for a video game, I had a visceral reaction of horror to it.

Time dies quite expediently on its own without needing any help from us.

I started thinking about how we use the word Time and different prepositions associated with it, such as:

On time (but not usually off time, at least not as an opposite)
Overtime (but not usually undertime)
In time, just in time (but not usually out time or just out time)
Nick of time (but not usually of time by itself)
out of time (but not usually in of time)
down time  (but not usually up time)

Think about what the meanings of the prepositions are and what that seems to imply about our conceptualization of time. Often it appears to be something separate from us, acting on its own accord, waiting for us to make use of it. Or, perhaps more telling, like this

Filling time (but not so much emptying time)

which seems to view time as a container…

But I wonder if our current models, such as time as an arrow, stream, container, dimension, and so on are all flawed by their assumed external characteristic of time. Even when relativity and personal time is mentioned as being locked onto the person, the subjective, time is often referenced as “slowing down” or “passing more quickly” depending on the perspective.

I’m thinking time might be better viewed in process terms. Consider this:

You turn over an hourglass and the sand starts running out. You have until the sand is depleted to live your life. The sand sometimes falls with greater ease and greater abundance. Other times it gets clogged or bottlenecked, trickling into the waiting bottom.

Our old model might say when  it is finished that it look “longer” than the  expected hour or maybe it emptied “sooner.” But that is vacuous wordplay from a life perspective.

The hourglass doesn’t take 65 minutes, 55 minutes, or One Perfect Hour to empty. It doesn’t take 5 years or 5 seconds. For what measuring device would you use to state such a thing, without that device itself needing another device  for confirmation, ad nauseum?

Instead, the amount of time it takes is nothing other than the process of sand running out having completed. There is no need for additional description of time expenditure and in fact such a model rejects such forced additions as being meaningless.

We never die of old age. What we die of is processes ending.

A 70-year-old man, for example, didn’t die because he turned 70. But he might have had a heart attack and his heart beat number 2,859,401,002 was his last. The beating heart process stopped. So it goes with other life-critical biological functions.

If my thoughts are correct here, then temporal-impacting thoughts necessarily shift from the weirdness of time “slowing down”  or “stopping”  to something far less abstract: did your heart beat or not?

And how many beats do you have before your process is complete.

Pay Day’s Eve

My life is worth about $2000, give or take $500.

Oh, I don’t mean cash on the barrelhead or anything conveniently and immediately profitable like that. I mean it as an existential crisis made concrete.

New Years Eve is coming with all its usual oohs and ahhs of being captivated by a dropping ball and a single digit changing. That’s the correct time to make resolutions like join a gym, exercise, or  eat more kale. The right time for the time-honored tradition of once-a-year self-reflection and thoughts of how to improve yourself so that 2018 finishes in a better fashion.

But my own ball drops tomorrow, December 29, as the last pay day of the year posts. Drops and bounces away into 2018, leaving me with an IOU for 2019.

For outside a Capra moment, there will be about a $2500 shortfall that my 120-hour, two weeks pay won’t meet. The math just isn’t there. So I will pay what I can, trying to triage my cut arteries the best I can, hoping to stave off eviction, repossession, and all the other  unpleasantries associated with not making ends meet.

Which ironically includes, of course, having extra fees and interest added on, since the penalty for not being able to pay enough on one’s debt is being required to pay even more. Breaking the cycle of poverty requires making enough to not only stay solvent through immediate debt, but enough to break the hands of  those who want to keep you there.

So how do I do that?

That’s the metaphysical question that ways most heavily on me, far overshadowing fear of death,  middle-aged  blues, and trying to write the Great American Novel.

I’ve never been good at making money hand-over-fist.

What I’ve been good at is showing up on time and working hard. At working holidays like Thanksgiving,  Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. At giving a damn and adding as many hours as I can, while sleeping as little as possible.

But that’s not working smarter, is it? It’s just turnip-squeezing.

The Hidden Assumptions of “Why” Questions

Why are we here?
Because we’re here.
Roll the bones!
– Rush

As a philosopher and armchair scientist, I live for the Why. My curiosity is ravenous and devours anything remotely piquing it.  In pursuit of knowledge I am constantly asking Why this or Why that, neither of which ever gets fully answered, but instead sends me scurrying off into other Why pastures.

Why is the most powerful question in the world, foreshadowing What and How and Where and When and all the other wonderful one-word thought-starters.

But  with that power comes the dark side of assumption that can jeopardize the integrity of our line of questioning and subsequently our answers.

Some examples:

  • Why are you queer?
  • Why are we here?
  • Why don’t you eat meat?
  • Why is there something rather nothing?

What do the above four “Why?” questions have in common?

Each seems to hold an assumed (that is, biased) standard that the question Is playing against. This means that instead of being an objective, knowledge-seeking question that it appears to be on the surface, it is a leading one.

Why are you queer, for example, seems to assume not being queer is the default,  axiomatic even, and contrastedly that being queer requires “explanation”. So by asking the question  in such a fashion, we are already shaping the answer into being a certain kind of answer: one that offers explanatory value only within the narrow confines of its assumption.

And renders any so-derived answer questionable.

The Flapping Wings of my Personal Butterfly

My last post was inspired in part by the well-documented and somewhat self-evident Butterfly Effect.

Indeed, most of my thinking is in response, one way or another, to this concept. For when I reflect on my actions, I am concerned first and foremost with their effect. Underneath that focus there is an assumption of some level of  agent efficacy that may or may not exist.

The things we quibble and quarrel about, like Good and Evil, Accountability and Blame,  Morality and Righteousness, God and Country, are shallow and somewhat vacuous intellectual romps compared to the really hard and far more fundamental question of just how much a flapping butterfly wing matters.

On the one hand, proof of mattering is all around us.

That may not seem so obvious when we describe the Butterfly Effect as the flap of butterfly wings on one side of the  globe causing a Tsunami on the other side. It may even sound absurd. But it becomes less so when we call it the more technical sounding Chaos Theory and look at it instead as simply saying that a small change can have huge effects down the road.

And it becomes immediately personal when viewed in terms of us existing at all.

“Us” in the plural sense, certainly, when you realize how many extinctions have occurred, but here I am meaning “us” in the singular sense: you, me,  and other would-be agents of change.

For when I reflect on my own existence, I can’t help being awestruck at how amazing it is that I am here at all. My presence might not seem like a particularly grand effect when viewed by someone other than me, but from the biased perspective of JD Fox, it is an inconceivably huge effect

But  the other hand is present, too:

Effects can be easily wiped out. One vote makes a difference. But an opposite vote cancels it. The flapping of wings can have an effect. But  the flapping of other wings can negate it. I am here, but I could have easily never been.

Such things in no way disprove the butterfly effect, of course, since those negations are also reliant on the small changes of long ago and act instead as further proof.  But they humble me, as I not only look at myself, but I look at the systems and processes involved.

The further out we move our lens, the more the effects, however huge,  get negated.  Trump’s insane tantrum-tweets, Kim Jong-un’s childish missile-waving, and all the other imbecilic, get-out-of-my-sandbox acts that spin us into hysterics are to the universe like a drop of water clinging to the edge of a pail.

That’s been left out in the hot sun.

Determining Freewill and Freewheeling Determinism

I love the cartoon above, even though I think it is wrong. Or, maybe more accurately, misleading, which is often worse than wrong. The caption is especially problematic, as it forces the otherwise brilliantly provocative cartoon into an unnecessarily limiting conceptual box.

It preys on fears of determinism by drawing our attention to the inevitable “end result” rather than the choices made along the way. In doing so, It trivializes the details of that along the way in a fashion similar to how believing the ends justify the means diminishes the moral content of a given action.

Indeed, we could rewrite that latter ethical claim into an agency claim of the “ends neutralize the means.” But by doing so, we are apt to miss three interrelated points:

    1. Freewill can never be absolute (or what freewill is not)
    2. Freewill requires determinism to exist (or what freewill we have)
    3. Freewill in any meaningful conception of the word exists only in the along the way (or what freewill we need)

One of the problems with language is that we sometimes  put words together to form a conceptual picture that seems viable to us, but isn’t. We will even stand our ground by saying that we can conceive of it being the case, so it must be a valid concept,  when really we can conceive of no such beast. Instead, we are just deluding ourselves, confusing our masterful ability to  conceive of conceiving with that of the conception itself.

Here’s a couple of examples to flex our thinking around this issue:

  • I want to study the pure forest. So can you please cut down all those trees so they don’t get in the way of my thinking.
  • I want to see what pure blue looks like. So can you please take all that color away so it doesn’t distract me.

Absurd, huh?

Yet we often assign such absurdity to things involving thinking, saying nonsensical yet specious phrases like “pure thought” or “I think, therefore I am,” where both think and thought are imagined to be capable of being  parceled out from the environment  and viable on their own.

THINKING IS ALWAYS ABOUT SOMETHING

It can be about objects, about other thoughts, or about itself. But it has to be anchored in some way for it to even exist. For if it isn’t, what exactly is thinking doing? How is operating? What is happening?

The same goes for freewill.  Absolute freewill sounds nifty, don’t it? The supposed ability to do whatever you will. But what exactly are you doing when invoking such a power? How is it operating? What is happening? The very moment freewill is exercised, it is at the same time necessarily being limited – determined – by the thing under its will.

Consider it this way:

You want to build a house. You might choose straw or wood or brick. But that choice will then limit what other choices there are and so on. The original choice might be expanded to include stone or 1001 other different kinds of materials, but the limit would still be in play. Sure, you can change your mind, which would be another example of exercising freewill, but that would just mean the limit changes form, and not that there is no limit in play.

The limit, of course, is a form of determinism.  For it determines what the outcome can and cannot be, like whether or not the wolf’s huffing and puffing can blow your house down. Our body itself is a limit, as, for example, we can’t breathe underwater, making living underwater difficult and problematic.

You might think, oh, but that’s not a conceptual limit, for I can imagine a being that can breathe underwater as well as air. But so what? That changes nothing. For if you live underwater, the living underwater limits apply instead of the living on the land limits. For if they didn’t,  what exactly are you doing when you exercise the will?

DETERMINISM IS NOT SOMETHING BAD

In fact, we rely on determinism to do anything — to will anything — at all. For If things set in motion didn’t behave a certain way, or at least were likely to behave a certain way, our will would actually be meaningless. It would be just a hope, a pray to the Gods, and not a will of any kind.

Yet determinism gets a bad rap because we don’t like the idea of our fate being dictated to us. So much so, we look at the cartoon and say poor ignorant cow, he doesn’t realize whatever choice he makes he will end up being turned into hamburger. Well, last I checked, all of us will eventually die, so at least that much is already determined for us.

And that’s a pretty big determined. So are we just ignorant cows. Maybe.

But what if we take death out of the equation? I don’t mean imagine a case where we don’t die. Rather, I mean not having death be the ultimate marker of the vitality of our choices or as the litmus test for freewill.

I’ve been playing around with inventing  models that I think might  best illustrate the  coexistence of choice and fate, of freewill and determinism. I’ve been trying to understand not only how they relate to each other, but how we can find meaning in that relationship.

THE TUBE:

Instead of focusing on the gruesome end of us and cows, let us travel along the walls. Round off the ceiling  and floor. Tilt the room. it is no longer a room, but a tube.  Imagine a ball thrown hard into the tube and it banging from side to side as it travels along its downward path. It’s going to end up wherever the tube leads, whether  to death or assorted stops along the way like a new job or boyfriend.  However, the route of its sideways travel itself is less predictable. That’s close to where our freewill lies.

THE BOILING POT:

We boil a pot of water to cook our pasta. Some of the molecules will be vaporized right away. Some will do so over the course of the cooking. And some not at all, unless we keep the pot on and at a high enough temperature. Regardless, while it is easy to predict that the water will boil, it’s far more difficult to predict which specific molecules will vaporize and when. That’s where our freewill lies.

Now with both scenarios, one could argue that individual route and individual vaporization, although difficult to predict, would not prove impossible to do so, if we had access to all the information. So isn’t every part of along the way just as much determined as the end of the tube?

That could be the case. And if it is, I might have to agree with Spinoza’s necessitarian assessment. There would not only no meaningful choice that we could make, but there would be no real choice at all. Such choice at all levels would only be illusion.

But my gut tells me there is something else going on that is at the heart of the freewill we need. Something that presides over the strange yet necessarily required interrelationship of freewill and determinism.  And no, I’m not talking about God, as that would simply take us back to Spinoza. Instead, I am meaning something far more sacred and profound:

RANDOMNESS!

Random Thoughts on Randomness – Part 1

“The most beautiful order is a pile of things poured out at random”
–Heraclitus
(Appropriated from Professor Metcalf’s Facebook Page)

Random Thought being a redundant phrase, of course, since all thoughts are necessarily random. For if they weren’t, you wouldn’t be able to think what you think you think.

But before I self-involvedly put out there my thoughts about that, I thought I might self-indulgently talk about this quintessential quandary:

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Now, we can take a look at a question like that and try to answer it as one or the other. Or declare it a circular reference without a determinate answer. Or push the answer back before  chickens or eggs onto other questions that would have to be answered first. Or we could just say “God only knows,” and mean it either literally or snarkily.

We could have debates, hold prayer meetings, and take to twitter with our views, being champions of this or that or Him.  Maybe make some Pro-Egg flyers or Believe in the Chicken posters. It would be kind of cool to see candidates trying to appease both sides, or The Trump signing an executive order declaring both eggs and chicken are fried, so there!

Yet, any such factious (or fractious) thinking would already be moving away from the most important, the most philosophically interesting, thing: The question itself.

For answers are never that interesting. They are boring in fact. And don’t even exist, for that matter, unless maybe you’re a blind faithy, fox-news-only kind of person. But then again, if that is so, you don’t so much have an answer as have simply delegated the question to someone above you (literally and snarkily).

So let’s move back from the egg-chicken details and think about what kind of question it is. Although it is phrased as “which came first”, I hear it first and foremost as a causal question rather than a temporal one. Who made who would probably be a more accurate representation of it, but so goes the idiom.

In causality questions, what’s at stake? Why does it matter? That is, why does it matter to us? Well, for starters, the stakes are a lot higher than chickens or eggs. When we assign causality, aren’t we really assigning independence to one thing and dependence to the other?

Is the chicken dependent on the egg  or is it the other way around? Independence and dependence both shade Will. I will leave out Free from that Will for now, as that four-letter word typically adds a whole level of nonsense to these kind of discussions. Right now we can think of Will as just like it sounds: the ability to make things happen, put things into motion.

By the question, are we assigning Will to one thing, and mere obedience to the other? Is hatching the willful act and the chicken coming out just obeying what was set in motion? Or is the laying where the will resides and the egg just following orders.

We see that the chicken and egg question really is about that common but oh so vacuous term freewill.

You might argue that eggs and chickens don’t have will, or that they might have will but not freewill and/or hatching and laying are instinctual not intentional or something else in a similar putting-our-bag-of-bones into some sort of privileged position where we act and do things consciously (yet another, like freewill, somewhat vacuous and frequently unhelpful term).

But such arguments take swipe at the wrong thing. The right thing is our very conception of action and reaction, of which the chicken and egg are mere props for our thinking. But if chicken and egg are too low on the food chain for consideration, we can simply replace them with Mother and Child. Or even better, how about God and humankind? Or physics and humankind?

For that’s really to where we want to roll back, isn’t it? What, if anything, came before God? What, if anything, came before the Big Bang? Like with the original chicken and egg question, the answer itself isn’t as important as what’s at stake.

And that stake of course is the meaning of life: The mattering of it all, or of any of it. We think, perhaps, that if we push things back to some assumed unmoved mover or uncaused cause we can then bring such duly clarified meaning forward. The meaning, however, hardly needs to make such a journey. Indeed, trying to do so would be a fool’s errand.

Instead, the meaning of our lives derives neither from the divine nor natural order, but in the inherent randomness each of us possesses at any given moment.

—–

Other possible Parts as I work through my thoughts on this:

Spinoza’s God and the Necessitarianism Obstacle

Reconceptualizing Randomness

Ball in Tube Analogy

Molecule of Water in Heated Pot Analogy

Abolishing Absolutes and other Phantasms

Limited Randomness: As Free as Will ever gets

The Inescapable Nevering

THE INESCAPABLE NEVERING

Close to the half-century mark
I will likely never

Climb Mount Everest
Spend a night in the International Space Station
Star in a Hollywood picture

And I’m okay with that or mostly okay
But there is another never
Far more subtle and harder to accept

Hundreds of beloved books on my bookshelf
that will never be reread
Thousands of favorite songs in my collection
that will never be heard again
And millions of pleasant thoughts in my head
that will never be thought again

Not so much forgotten or ignored
As simply not coming to mind
Buried in the vault of me

That keeps on acquiring
new books to read
new music to hear
new pleasant thoughts to cherish

iTunes tells me I need
(right now)
215.4 days to listen
(to everything)

one      time      through

Music plays while I write this
The whole of it on shuffle

Finding Our Pulse

kind

Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.

Mark Combs, a friend of mine from way back, posted the above Voltaire quote.

I like the line quite a bit, even though I consider words like “guilty” and “good” to be counterproductive and ultimately vacuous, as are their antonyms, innocent and evil. The problem with such words is that they can too easily draw people into a cycle of focusing on assignation rather than pushing them forward into personal action.

And action, really, is at the heart of Voltaire’s words. A call to action.

A call to the realization that not taking action is an action in and of itself. A realization that there is no middle ground. A realization that you have a choice to act and that “if you choose not to decide / you still have made a choice.

With the Orlando massacre, there are analyses of cause by both professional and armchair intellectuals.  There are conversations about prevention ranging from passing stricter gun laws to saying everyone in the nightclub should have been armed.

But I want to approach it a wholly different way. Approach it at the individual level; at the level I go to on a daily basis.

What part did you play in the massacre? We all should ask ourselves this question, and ask it often.

And you did play a part. Of course you did. Remember: there is no middle ground.  So, phrased another way, did you play the part of someone trying to make things better for all?

Passing bathroom bills and engaging in other forms of hate speech is the antithesis of better. And doing nothing amounts to the same.

When I hear about violence, I tell my husband how much I love him. When I hear about animal abuse, I hold my critters close. When I hear about child abuse, I think of all the kids I work with and how much I want to protect them.

And then I expand that circle: say hi to a neighbor, pet a stray animal, think of another way I can help kids.

So phrased yet another way, at this precise moment, with your finite life running out, what “good” do you have left to do.

And what are you waiting for?