Tag Archives: Philosophy

Tubes, Butterfly Wings, and Free Will

Segueing from my last post, a what now recently came into my mail box.

The assistant to the city manager e-mailed me about another opportunity to get involved: the Montpelier Conservation Commission has a vacancy. So I’ve applied for that, like I did with the Development Review Board. It will be a few weeks — sometime in October — before the council votes on appointments to it, but I’ve put my application in, and that’s as good of a first what now as any.

But there are lots of nows until then. So learning from my past and hoping to give a better impression this second time out come October, I’m going to do some research on what the commission has done, plans to do, and hopefully talk to some relevant people live about the role.

I might still not get it. And if I don’t, I’ll try to learn from it and see what other, perhaps better kinds of actions I might take towards achieving my civic goals.

Nothing unusual about that: taking action, seeing effects, and taking more actions based on the effects you’ve seen. Comes with being human and having faith that are actions do generate effects.

And they do. But they also kind of don’t.

The don’t is what I’m thinking about right now, which escorts me towards free will territory. But I won’t cross over too far into that borderland for this particular post, as the ground there quickly becomes treacherous and tricky to navigate, starting with even getting at a satisfactory definition.

But here on the edge of it, I’ll cash it out simply and oversimplified as what kind of power you have to take action in the world, which further cashes out, it seems to me, as what kind of effect you can have in the world.

Now I used to be a big butterfly believer: the idea that a small action — like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings — can have large effects. And I still am to some degree and still think a small action can. But lately I’ve started thinking about scope and how difficult it is for any action to have true consequence.

All actions have effects, but effects can get cancelled out. And if they do, from the point of view that encompasses all the relevant actions, there is no real effect.

Imagine a tube. You throw a ball down it and it ricochets every which way, but it still comes out the end. You can throw it down the tube again and it will likely go a different every which way, but it still spits out the same place at the end.

It’s not necessary to know each and every point of ricochet to predict — to determine — the outcome. You just have to be able to see the tube that holds the events not the events themselves.

And of course the tube doesn’t have to be an actual tube nor look anything like a tube. It can be a life or lives, a war or wars, a society or civilization itself.

Nothing revelatory about this. Myths mine it heavily and we have words ingrained in us like fate, destiny and the ubiquitous phrasing full of implicit deterministic belief “meant to be”.

And of course the tube doesn’t have to be confined to the plight of humankind. It can be one large enough to funnel the world, the solar system, the universe. When all is said and done, the sum of it all — our all — will likely be just a single ricochet off the side of a much larger tube.

A tube that I would think is God if I were religious-minded. But I’m not, so I’ll stick with envisioning it as a tube; yet, nevertheless I can’t help but think how bizarre it is for the ostensibly religious-minded to harm others in the name of that tube, whether in Kenya or Andromeda.

Maybe their answer to what now is driven by an unconscious realization that they are going down the tube, as is everyone, whether they want to or not. They think that if they can claw their way over others, they might stop their dropping, or maybe somehow arrive at a more prime spot at the end; win favor with a tube that is not so much indifferent as unaffected.

Being neither a god nor a tube, I can’t help but be affected by the goings-on halfway around the world. I can’t help but think that each and every person is in this tube together and that should be a common thread that binds us; one that should encourage us to help make the mutual descent as pleasant as possible.

Being just a mortal, I do not have the power to stop, or really even slow, the absurd amount of bloodshed caused by others.

But, as just a mortal, I can sew my what nows with that aforementioned common thread and do things like try and join a conservation committee where I might help preserve natural beauty for everyone to see. I can pick up an author from the airport for a book festival, try to be nicer to my husband, and take time out from whatever I’m doing to pet my cat.

Small acts for sure. But then again, in the blind eyes of the tube, all acts are small.

But they don’t all have to be, and shouldn’t be, so damn shallow.

Fair Thoughts

I went to the animal fair
the birds and beasts were there
The big baboon by the light of the moon
was combing his auburn hair
The monkey he got drunk
and fell on the elephant’s trunk
The elephant sneezed and fell on his knees
but what became of the monk, the monk

I don’t know where or when I first heard that silly rhyme, but it’s stuck with me without deliberation in the weird way some memories do. I want to attach it maybe to my Grandfather Ross or my step-dad Max, or both, as I seem to remember it coming out of their mouths, but I can’t be certain beyond that seeming.

That’s par for the course for me, as my memories are at best disorganized. And at worst? Maybe lost or at least irretrievable.

I remember my life in fragments that are never attached to dates.

Oh, sure, I can sometimes calculate what the date must be, but that’s coming from the outside as I re-process the shard of remembrance with the conscious part of my brain. I mean that there is typically no date inherent in the memory itself. Instead, stray pieces of event data bubble to the surface.

As they did when Gary and I went to the Vermont State Fair.

We went on Patron Appreciation Day, which translates as Free Day. Gary had a caramel apple. I had fried dough (which sounds wrong to me, as I grew up calling the same thing an Elephant Ear, and that’s how I always think of the pastry, and will likely always think of it). We also saw different birds and beasts. And rode some rides.

The rides is where the most bubbling occurred for me. Again, without dates or any other such lattice to fully secure them into place. But I remembered:

Being downright chicken-shit with rides. One of the more embarrassing childhood moments for me was slinking out of line for a ride my step-brother Tim tried to trick me into going on. Or in. He told me it was a line to go watch motorcyclists drive around the walls in that gravity-defying way that is popular for watching.

Instead, it was that ride where you stand against the wall of a round room which spins fast enough to allow the floor to drop out from under you in your own gravity-defying, non-motorcycle riding way.

I was mad at him at the time but now I’m thinking he had to have found me exasperating.

Sometime, though, during the course of life, I became un-chicken-shitted. I rode The Racer — backwards and forwards — the Screaming Demon, The Beast  and The Bat as well as assorted rides that emphasized various degrees of equilibrium-disturbing spin. One of my strongest memory fragments is racing through Kings Island with my friend Mark making  sure we got our money’s worth of thrills.

Just a short decade or so ago Gary and I went with  the folks to Busch Gardens and rode, among other things, the Demon Drop, which is just what it sounds like:  a completely vertical drop

Now, though, I find myself viewing such rides again with more than a little trepidation.

Oh, I can’t rightly say I’ve reverted back to my scaredy-cat past. For one thing, the pair of balls I’ve managed to grow over the years won’t let me. I’m not the same afraid-of-my-shadow kid that I was and I think all-in-all that’s a good thing.

As it is, I reckon I even fancy myself being the butch — or maybe more butch — one of the relationship, so I kind of have an obligation to automatically agree to whatever ride Gary wants to go on, regardless of any reservations I might have about the amusement level of such amusement rides.

So I bought us each a ride band and we rode as he willed, us getting scrambled, tilted, whirled, and, déjà vu of that day long ago with Tim, spun fast enough so the floor could drop away from us as our backs clung to the wall.

As we revolved around our mutual center, I couldn’t help but think of that song by Duran Duran:

The world spins so fast
that I might fly off

And yeah, I had faith in the machinery that moved us, just like I have faith in the gravity of the considerably bigger ride we’re on, so I didn’t really believe I might fly off in either case.

Yet how are such beliefs grounded?

Yeah, sure, we can measure, predict, and mathematically model this spinning piece of rock we call home, but the starting point of such scientific explanation rests ultimately on a faith similar to that of a religious nature.

Oh, I don’t mean the silly dogmatic kind of religious faith that applauds dioramas of men riding dinosaurs like Neanderthal cowboys and weirdly if earnestly believes that calling evolution just a theory somehow is a refutation of it.

I mean instead the faith of those who are actively engaged in trying to make sense of something that at the end of the day, no matter how you grapple with it — philosophically, religiously, or scientifically —  is beautifully, wondrously, and awe-inspiringly more than a little absurd.

The ride stopped and I stepped out onto the ground that was there as I expected it to be, blind faithfully feeling the Terra Firma baptism of the cosmos.

Mountain Climbing

Okay, so it wasn’t a mountain. It was more of a hill.

And I didn’t climb, I walked. Though I reckon the two verbs merge as angle of degree increases. Still, I would be hesitant to ascribe the perhaps exaggerated exertion of climbing to the route I took to the Hubbard Park Tower which was 90% paved road.

But the pavement part leading to the relatively level trail-inside-the-park had an ungodly elevation to it that suited the street names of Hillside and Cliff. Even the final street before the Tower Loop, Corse, sounds enough like curse and course to make it seem readily a part of such spot-on naming.

The frequent changes in inclination here are surely a wonder to behold, but they can also be a challenge to making pedestrian plans. A short and sweet route on Google Maps often gets a reality check that reveals itself to be longer and not near as pie-easy as originally anticipated.

But I kept faith in my chosen path, put one foot in front of the other, and made it to the tower. I climbed — stairs inside, so it is climbing — to the top and took a picture of the new view I had:

IMG_20130830_165518

Kind of a crappy picture, I know.

I did it with my phone and my face reflected back at me, so I couldn’t be sure what kind of view I actually had through its lens. Also, in retrospect, I should have used landscape view. Nevertheless, it gives perspective that a ground-view doesn’t offer and I like the isolated  house or two up in the hills that it captured.

However, the most important thing is that the path I walked took me where I wanted to go. The map may have obfuscated the difficulty involved, but it did not lie. I just had to follow it the best I could and, based on my previous knowledge of maps, I had certainty that my goal would be achieved.

I wish I had that kind of confidence in my other exertions.

I find myself suffused with doubt about my ability to do anything that truly matters. The kind of doubt that looks up a staircase of meaningless infinity and is overwhelmed from taking the steps needed to get anywhere. Indeed, the kind of crippling existential doubt that not only questions the chosen where, but wonders if there is a mattering where to be found.

So much so, I’ve let myself mentally and philosophically languish.

I’ve been in a kind of thought coma that I’ve been having difficulty waking up from. I know I should have deep thoughts, want to have deep thoughts, deserve to have deep thoughts… but one of the problems with deep thoughts is that any single one of them is only arrived at after a journey much more involved and difficult than a jaunt to the tower.

The other problem is the obvious one: the deeper the thought, the less clear what the best route is, or whether the route being taken is a good one at all.

It is like climbing a mountain where your footing not only is uncertain at best, but there is a nagging feeling that upon reaching the summit, if one is even reached, you will cast a gaze in the distance and realize you should have been climbing that one way over there.

I’ve been trying to squelch such depressing and disempowering thoughts, since the alternative is staying way down here where nothing grows and the way over there would still be way over there; we just wouldn’t know it.

On Amazon today, I looked inside the kindle edition of the most recent book by the septuagenarian philosopher Daniel C  Dennett. At the start of chapter one he has a quote by Bo Dahlbom that made me feel considerable — and deserved — guilt at letting my tools rust and my blades dull.

You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands and you
can’t do much thinking with your bare brain.

Philosophical mountains call to me and I think my backpack’s been on the floor for far too long.

Sunset Thoughts

sunset 1

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;

I tend to be more aware of sunrises than sunsets. I get up before dawn and the world lights up — wakes up — as I type. There is a certain exhilarating yet peaceful energy in the cracking dawn that rejuvenates and gives momentum to the day.

But the sun always sets, too. As I get older I find my awareness of this growing and I’m paying more attention to the end of day.

Last night Gary and I went on a sunset cruise on Lake Champlain, where I took the photo at the top of this blog. I meant to get some more pictures of the setting sun, thinking I would take them when it was lower in the horizon and just beginning to hide behind the mountains.

But my phone wouldn’t cooperate, which of course is a euphemism for can only be attributable to human error. As I struggled to get the phone powered back on, security code entered, and stay on the proper screen, the sun dropped out of sight.

Dropped as in, well, dropped.

I had no idea the set part would happen so quickly. We were watching for a good several minutes as the sun leisurely drifted downward, giving an illusion of plenty of time. Then poof: no more sun.

This morning I conquered my usual introverted tendencies and attended a small neighborhood pancake breakfast. I talked with one of my neighbors, Nina Thompson, about her Wake Up to Dying Project as we ate pancakes and drank coffee outside.

Life is so precious and oh so fleeting, yet we spend so very little time — surprisingly little time — thinking about our own mortality. Her project aims to change that.

Oh, not change it to a thinking filled with dread and morbidity; quite the opposite. Drawing from her years of work as a hospice volunteer she is concerned about how people prepare for the end; or rather, don’t prepare.

Often people don’t even talk about it at all.

More broadly, there seems to be a disconnect between the reality of death coming towards us and how we live our lives. If one were truly aware of — that is, if one gave serious thought to — their eventual demise, the life they lead would surely reflect it.

In this sense, the project could just as easily be called Wake Up to Living.

The sun will set whether our camera is ready or not. Our loved ones will at some point die and our last words to them will be our last words to them: the good, the bad or the ugly. How important it is — deadly important, in fact — to make the most of each moment, taking a beautiful snapshot when we can.

home with cat

The Cure, Concepts, and Functional Sameness

I turned to look at you
To read my thoughts upon your face
And gazed so deep into your eyes
So beautiful and strange
Until you spoke
And showed me understanding is a dream
“I hate these people staring
Make them go away from me!”
—- the Cure, How Beautiful You Are

I am (slowly) reading this wholly engaging and insightful book on thought by Douglas Hofstadter & Emmanuel Sander called Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. In it, they argue that analogy is not only a primary component of what we call thinking, but it is essential; it is foundational to thought occurring at all.

I think they’re on to something and hope to write much on that something, but right now I want to focus on their deconstruction of concepts, which I think glosses over a crucial something that I further think is pretty much universally glossed over. It is not the kind of crucial that would destroy their overall thesis (like I said, I think they’re onto something). But it is the kind or crucial that keeps me up at night and frames, or at least adds to, my perspective on things.

We are so used to living our lives conceptually, that we take concepts for granted, not spending much time thinking about how there really is not anything spoken or written or thought that is not coming from our ongoing conceptual construction, which not only encompasses the obvious ones understood as concepts like dogs and cats and chairs, but also ones not so obvious like and and the and a.

Hofstadter and Sander systematically disabuse us of the notion that concepts are somehow out there like planets waiting to be discovered; rather, it is the opposite. They are slippery and somewhat arbitrary beasts coming from inside us, subject to change and very much to our collective whim.

One important way they show this is through comparing languages, focusing on what every translator knows well: there are major differences in how languages divide things conceptually, making one-to-one word translation often impossible. For example:

We know what time it is right now… how much time it will take to drive to the airport, and how many times we’ve done so before. These three ideas strike us as being… about just one concept: the concept known as “time”

In France, however, our conceptually monolithic time is regarded as involving three separate concepts, therefore requiring a distinct word to be used to convey the meaning of each particular situation clearly.

The authors give many other thought-provoking examples, but another one I found most fascinating was from Indonesia. Where we describe siblings in terms of sister and brother, meaning female sibling and male sibling respectively, Indonesians break out siblings in term of comparative age. So instead of brother and sister, they use kakak and adik, which mean “elder sibling” and “younger sibling”.

The overall point is that how things get broken up conceptually is not universal, and can differ significantly from culture to culture; collectively created out of what that society deems important, efficient, or just plain sensible.

However, the authors go on to say, for a large number of concepts there is good agreement across languages. This would be expected, as we are all human and do things like walk and talk and eat and sleep and so on.

But — and the but here is now me interjecting my own tangential thoughts into the matter — agreement is not the same as identical. We may, at times, be able to translate one word directly for another, and it may serve the function we intended, but I’m not convinced the ‘meaning’ content is the same. Indeed, I take this strand of thought further, wanting to contend that concepts break down differently at the individual level not just at the cultural one.

Oh, we have agreement, sure, and linguistic workarounds. And it is true enough that someone’s not going to say dog to me and I’m going to picture, say, a horse. But at the core level, at the necessarily individualized experiential level, I think the agreement is of functional sameness masquerading as an identically shared concept.

For even though we each employ the use of ostensibly mutually understood concepts in our dialogues with one another, we can’t help but fill in those thought containers with our personalized specifics and shade the understanding with our own life experiences. This might be one of the reasons why it is so difficult to find common ground; we can never absolutely know someone else’s ground let alone completely share it.

By our very nature, at the most basic biologically confining level, everyone already IS an island and never will be — never can be — anything else.

And this is why I hate you
And how I understand
That no-one ever knows or loves another