Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Self Reflection Aqui no Brasil

I was sitting here, wondering about my conversation with JV and IP yesterday (they are the thesis advisors of the J Continuum's doctoral work).

Problem solving. That’s the fun part. JV made a good point. Applying oneself to problem-solving can occur in any number of diverse problems, the riddle itself, that’s what’s thrilling – crosswords, the ecology of spotted toads, what’s the difference? It made me think… it made me sad.

The old J… well, I guess I kind of think of it as "The Old J". Don’t know if it really WAS the old J or the rosy backwards-looking glasses or what. But anyway, in this idolized version of days gone by, I was interested in anything, everything. (OK, I do remember hating math – of course, that’s the subject second only to straight bio and poli sci that I’m most using now!) (OK, that sounds lame – what I mean is that it’s one of the three major thrusts of my thesis.) And I feel like the old J would’ve been with Advisor JV on this one. Hey, yeah, it’s fun to solve any kind of problem, why not listen and think about it and wonder about it? Even if it is the ecology of spotted toads, completely divorced from the politics that has put them in a position of neear extinction?

Well, I figured it out. At first, I thought it was because of the discovery, or rather my realization that there’s no end to knowledge – there’s no solving all the puzzles, there’s no knowing everything, there’s no… completion. And the thought that I wanted there to be an end to knowledge, to searching, was frightening. As I once said to Old Friend of J Juan Armando, the thrill “should” be in the fact that you’ll never run out of new, amazing things to discover. I’d never want to own “all the good music in the world” or have seen every good plot. I already feel like that watching movies and TV shows without the nuisance of it being true. (Sorry for the various references to esoteric J-folks, this started out as something I wrote for myself.)

I want to be excited about the new problem around the corner, excited that there’ll never be an end to them. But I realized… well I’m skipping ahead here because I just thought of this now, after ruminating on parts I haven’t written yet, but I realized that if I have “problems” to solve without end, I’d rather they involve people. People make me feel alive. Puzzle solving makes me feel… gives me that feeling of distracting myself from myself. Like the blare of white noise, or losing yourself in a video game or a really horrible show or what have you… you’re “enjoying” yourself because you’re in the existential grasp of not self-realizing; you’re caught up in another reality, outside of yourself, losing your self-consciousness in the process. It is not, of course, quite that ominous, but it does strike me similar to the idea of death being just… the end. The end of self, no afterlife, reincarnation, or end of days. Ok, off topic.

Puzzle solving in the abstract is fine and dandy, but it’s not my calling, I realized. And not because there’ll always be new problems, but rather because no problem is ever truly solved. Everything is a mystery unto itself, no matter how much you know. What are we made of? Matter. What’s matter? That which has mass. What’s mass? A property of matter, bending space-time around it; made up of subatomic particles: neutrons, protons, and tiny little 1 millionith of a proton’s weight electrons. What are those made of? Quarks. What are quarks made of? I have no fucking clue. But the next definition will no more be the end of it than the first (matter). All terms are subdividable; all events and objects fall prey to Xeno’s Paradox. (I once met a stripper who quoted Xeno’s paradox. It was bizarre. Not that strippers can’t be smart – but at the time I couldn’t have quoted Xeno’s paradox, I remembered the concept but not the name.) There is an infinity of space between you and I; and this is not just because you’re floating off somewhere in Internet world. That is, you can infinitely subdivide the space between you and I, whether you’re 1 meter or 1 terameter away. It is possible to bridge that gap, yes, but it is never possible to define every nanometer, and half a nanometer, and half of a half of a nanometer, etc.

As much as this is true of matter, or any other concept, object, type, shape, form, space, it is true of human existence. Or more precisely, our perceptions of our existence. And at some point, I realized that if I’m going to be trapped in an infinite regress, I’d rather it be about people. And really, very specifically about people – how and what brings us together. There are an infinity of ways to do this. As such, I like theatre, and music, and humanity and selflessness and chief among things I love, my family and friends. There are an infinite number of ways to know and to love them. It is difficult, at times, to find even one of those ways. But this is an infinite regress I enjoy, and things adding to that, like literature, I like insofar as they enrich life. But same as science, I realized that literature is subject just as much, if not more, to infinite regress. This, of course, is often related to contemplations on the most obvious and commonly cited existential puzzle – the very puzzle of existence; not what we are, but why we are. An interesting question, but one that, like biology or atoms, I realized can forever spiral in on itself, each insight growing your knowledge but bringing you no closer to an end. This is no reason not to start the journey at all, and given infinite lifetimes I would choose to know each of the universe’s infinite things. If I had time enough and world, as they say.

But I do not. And if I’m to spend my life dedicated to solving the unsolvable, working towards an end that by its very definition does not exist (the infinite regress of knowledge), I want to go not ever deeper into the same vortex, but rather visit as many vortices as possible. Not all things are of equal interest to me, but very few are as deeply interesting to me as just knowing people. I could never know enough people; and entwining them in the puzzle of my life and I in theirs brings joy in every occurrence, each step potentially as fulfilling, or more so, than the last. I don’t feel that way about science or philosophy; or I guess more precisely, I feel exactly that way about them (stay with me; this is like my current favorite expression “Well, that’s absolutely right… though in a different, and more important way, wrong.”) That is to say, I want to spend time getting to know the people I know further, sharing new experiences, and exploring infinity that way – reading new science, new philosophy, hearing new music, and chiefly making new friends. But never to spend an eternity knowing only one to the exclusion of others. Books, music, people, and alas, yes, for me, science, once you get to a certain comfortable familiarity, the adventure continues, but you can begin to spend as much time enjoying what you have as searching for more – because there are also infinite combinations of experiences and people that you already know! (Side fact of interest to no one: The Vulcan flag, this being the Vulcans of Star Trek, has IDIC on it, well, on the English version – Infinite Diversity, in Infinite Combinations.) (Cool.)

So in this realization, in this light, I can’t stand to spend so much time trying to solve the unsolvable riddle of one problem, in the abstract, with infinity to explore in all directions. I love political ecology because there is an “end” – in that a self-sustaining and self-perpetuating peace with the world and with each other is possible. It is, of course, only possible for some millions, and perhaps trillions, of years, but I’m comfortable building towards this practical limit as if it were infinity. That is to say, especially on the small scale where I want to start my work, you can find things that are working to help people, to help them provide for themselves and theirs, to learn and grow, to love their life, to love others, equally true for others as for oneself. I want to work towards making such things as close to perfect as possible, but with a very definable “end” in mind – that all people, in all the world, have an opportunity to become their best selves. What Amartya Sen has called equality in the ability to achieve. (Not, obviously, in a Kurt Vonnegut-y way, where we lower everyone to equality so no one is unequal.)

There can be a world where everyone has food (as my preliminary thesis work already shows – there are MORE than enough calories available per person in the world today – about 2800 calories/person/day are available (I think that's the number), and even in poor countries and famine regions, there is practically always over 2,200 calories/person present in the region – the problem is who has what and who can procure what, i.e. poverty and political impotence). There can be a world where a minimum of pollution is emitted, where we emit approximately as much as the earth can absorb without increasing the rate of extinction (there is a semi-controversial “background” extinction rate that one would expect if humans weren’t accelerating it – we have increased it to several thousand or several million times this rate, plus or minus – this part’s not an exact science, but the change is big, and it’s not good, this we know). Not getting into any argument about “inherent worth” or species, charismatic, mega, fauna, or not, there is the fact that it is technically possible to have such a world without lowering everyone’s quality of life unduly. A world with extreme wealth and inequality, probably not (sorry, it just turns out to be even less thermodynamically sustainable than contributions to entropy from egalitarian societies). A world where everyone can have children at the replacement rate (again, assumedly out of enlightenment, not out of coercion), and be able to provide adequate nutrition and intellectual stimulation to these children, and able to obtain and enjoy some of the world’s gifts, yes. A world where some people can do 2 – 2,000,000 times more of this enjoying than everyone else, no.

This is what I want to work on. This is a problem with an end, so great for a closure-oriented guy like myself. It’s a possible end, if a hard one to get to (and certainly beyond my lifetime, a fairly practical endpoiont). But that’s enough challenge for me; and one that I feel have world enough and time for.

Some infinite riddles are just going to have to be left unsolved; I’ve got my eye on one in particular.

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