I think our current state of evolution might best be described as early adolescence. In my way of thinking the beginning of domestication, with the resulting push towards civilization, symbolizes the time when a child would begin school. The Industrial Revolution symbolizes the beginning of puberty, and our current state of high technology and power over the Earth symbolizes the rapid physical, emotional, and intellectual growth of early adolescence. Much like adolescents have to navigate through treacherous mazes of temptation and emotional turmoil, the human race has to learn how to balance the benefits that come with great power and control against the potential catastrophes that can result from shortsighted, unsustainable growth. Adolescents, for the most part, survive the dangers of puberty and reach adulthood; statistics to that effect are freely available. There are no such statistics to reassure an emotionally immature yet all too powerful human race. To paraphrase our instructor, we won’t know if we made it to adulthood until we get there.
I think the reason I am in college now is related to Nietzsche’s principles. I decided that I wanted to do one more hard thing before I got too old; I decided that hard thing was to go back to college. Many of my long-time friends have gradually faded out of my life in the last couple of years, mostly because I replaced casual ‘hanging out’ sorts of activities with studies and intellectual discussions. I hear a lot of “good for you” from old friends, but the look on their face says “well, you aren’t fun anymore.”
My takeaway from Nietzsche’s work is that our human need to feel like we belong homogenizes us, turning talented, potentially driven individuals into generic vessels of mutual interests and beliefs. We choose a political party, a church, and a favorite version of “Law and Order” – and we call anyone who attempts to exercise free will things like “radical” or “dissident” or “troublemaker” or even “heretic.” The word “heretic” originally came from the Greek word for “choice.” Nietzsche was telling us that we cannot reach our own potential unless we learn to think independently, and stop worrying about what others think about us – and choose our own path.
I think life itself is the prize for living. Moments of pleasure, like spending time with family and friends, eating a good meal, seeing a good movie, even something as banal as the satisfaction we feel when we cut off a toenail are small prizes for living.
I also think life’s meaning is everywhere, but maybe we miss it because we look for meaning in large, concentrated doses instead of taking it as it comes to us. Something as simple as seeing somebody drop something and you pick it up and return it to them, that has meaning. The look of gratitude they give you fills you with a rush of good feeling. The meaning of life. You made a difference. You paid the rent for your personal miracle. Your life, by virtue of a positive interaction, had meaning. It can go the other way too, of course. Good can’t exist without evil out there, lurking in the shadows.
Even the tiniest gesture can change the world – the butterfly effect – so virtually all interaction has meaning on some level. It might just be that we are greedy about how much meaning we want out of our lives, so we don’t notice these tiny little doses, but they are all over the place.
How many people does it take to need a government? I see attention as the key. In pairs, each member can give virtually full attention to the other. Nobody is ever more careful to act in the larger interest than someone who feels as if he or she is being watched. The need for governing is virtually nil in a pair. In small groups there is a bit more freedom from watching and being watched. We don’t watch everyone, and we don’t feel like we are being watched all the time. There is generally a need for a familial sort of governing at this level; parents, den mothers, teachers and coaches can handle the governing at this level.
As groups get larger, the sense of watchfulness dissipates, at a similar ratio to the sense of being watched. There is a critical mass point in there somewhere where individuals lose personal interest in the group as a whole, and concentrate on only the parts of the group that they deal with directly. There is another critical mass point where individuals begin to feel as if nobody is watching them, and they lose the shame that keeps them from acting against the group’s interest. At this point there is a need for governance, to replace individual watchfulness and apply shame to the unwatched.
I took an introductory course in chemistry at the same time as I took Philosophy, so the concepts of attraction and repulsion were in the main lobby of my cerebral cortex at the time I wrote this piece on the movie “I Heart Huckabees.”
I originally thought Albert, Brad, and Tommy were all one person metaphorically fragmented, but if that were true why would Brad and Tommy have existence outside of Albert’s perception? I came to see each character as separate, circling around Albert’s own fragmented, unbalanced process of self-discovery. Brad is pure ambition, driven to conquer everything in his path through charm and calculated likability. Tommy is raw, random idealism housed in a shell of heroic hostility. Dawn represents narcissistic struggle, alternately begging to be stared at and demanding that we stop staring at her. The investigators work together – one aggressive, persistent, and intrusive, the other calm, instructive, and nurturing – to help Albert take down the walls and find out how he is connected to the world. Caterine represents a cynical view of the same world, where all is alone – unconnected – and nothing matters. The investigators teach Albert to open his mind and examine his thoughts, while the nihilistic Caterine teaches him to stop thinking altogether.
The two sides of the investigation remind me of something I learned just last week, in my Chemistry course. Nothing is solid; we are all structures made out of bits of matter surrounded by comparatively large amounts of space, held together by magnetic forces. Examining the opposing views of the investigators and their former prize pupil, this can be taken to mean that everything is connected – through the constantly mingling electrons – or that all matter is ultimately alone, untouched by other matter. We are attracted and repulsed, seemingly moving towards and away from each other, but in fact we are constantly circling, orbiting, but desperately clawing to get closer and further away at the same time. The symmetry of attraction and repulsion whipsaws us back and forth, between giddy, joyous attraction and hideous, depressing repulsion, until we accept this bizarre contradiction and, to borrow an old, tired cliche, learn to ‘go with the flow’.
Albert learns, through Caterine, that there can be pleasure in human drama. This opens his mind to the idea that both sides of the investigation are on the correct track, but themselves fragmented and unbalanced. Albert sees that connectedness and disconnectedness each have a role in human drama, circling each other; the metaphorical electrons try to pull everything together while the inertia of the center mass hides beneath its electron shield. He uses the analogy of nice things growing out of manure, which is easier to sniff out (sorry) but I think the better analogy would be that attraction and repulsion create a circling, swirling balance. The only way to stay on our feet is to, figuratively but also a little bit literally, keep our balance.
To my mind, Plato’s parable about the birds helps explain how different cultures developed their own origin stories, and their own gods. The separate cultures completely isolated from each other in the early days of civilization, and they developed their origin stories independently. Naturally there would be disagreements – apples and oranges sorts of disagreements – between cultures when they ran into each other. I wouldn’t think that people would go to war over an argument about the differences between apple birds and orange birds, but arguments over the difference between apple gods and orange gods have been a serious problem since the early days of civilization.
I’m optimistic that this issue has the potential to actually dissipate over the next few generations. It will become more and more difficult to hold stubbornly onto provincial origin stories as our connectedness leads to an explosion in shared learning. We are becoming a global village; through social media our children will have friends all over the world – even if they never leave Spokane. Succeeding generations might find it difficult to hold onto provincial opinions when they can flip a switch on their phone and talk to someone on the other side of the world, with their own set of provincial opinions. As neighbors eventually learn to find common ground, I’m sure we as a global culture can learn to do the same.
After reading the work of David Hume, I decided – or was compelled – to test my ability to exercise independent, deliberate, original thought through my own free will. I sat still, attempted as best I could to relax my brain and mentally place myself in a starting gate, ready to spring forward with a spontaneous thought. What happened next, and happened every time I tried this exercise, was that my brain began to spin through options, like I was running my fingers through a mental rolodex.
The mental image I came up with was that the rolodex was spinning far too fast for me to see anything in detail, but as the slips flashed by I was able to sense glimpses in hindsight, like a memory of seeing what was on the slips. Some jumped out more than others, and as I remembered which ones stood out the most I looked around the room where I sat. I could either see what I remembered, or things that could easily have triggered the memory. For an example of the triggering reflex, my garage was in clear view out my back window. I associate my garage almost exclusively with mowing the lawn, since I recently moved in and my mower is just about all that I have in my garage. One of the clearest memories was of my lawn mower. Original thought seems to be the product of a trip through my mental rolodex of memories. Even inside the rolodex the memories that are on top are the most apparent, as if my brain were a chest freezer.
I think freedom and security are mutually antagonistic. I prefer freedom over security, given the choice, but I recognize that I am better suited than most to live with a lower level of security. I think I understand some of the reasons why many personality types prefer security over freedom; mothers want to protect their children, type B personalities don’t like to make a lot of decisions, and in time many people tire of the endless, competitive rat race and the constant stress that comes from exercising free will. Looking from another angle, we might just be drawn to security because we are drawn to the familiar, and security feels familiar while freedom does not.
Not everyone likes to exercise free will; many people I’ve known over the years bristle at the mere suggestion that there are options, and not just options regarding serious, long held views. As a bartender I’ve seen angry reactions to being forced to drink the wrong brand of cola, and some customers will not stay unless they can sit in a certain chair, drink from a certain glass, and even have the exact same napkin pattern in front of them. I can pour a drink for almost every one of my regulars without asking them what they want, and I am given the news in no uncertain terms if I don’t have the correct program on the television, even when the volume is off and the bar is full of scantily clad young women.
I think there is an ingrained reflex inside of us that creates this attraction toward the familiar. It might be as simple as nature selecting for infants who recognize their mother’s nipple, or part of our ongoing need to simplify our lives in an increasingly complicated world.
Thinking about my own habits and tendencies, I am as extreme as my bar customers. I have been obsessed my entire driving life with not taking left turns, and parking where I don’t have to back out. I will go out of my way to avoid both, and if I am not able to I feel anger and anxiety rise up inside me. I’ve even skipped an errand, or driven to a different store, to avoid backing out or taking a left turn.
Some theories make me feel like a square headed skeptic, and the more I read the less sure I am about my square headed convictions, but I don’t have that doubt about Berkeley’s philosophical theorems. If you ask me Berkeley was not a philosopher, he was a salesman. He wished to prove the existence of his product (God), which could not be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched – so he was compelled to refute the existence of anything that those five senses were able to detect. I don’t see why the problem of tangible existence has taken so long to refute, aside from the general obsession humans seem to have with supernatural perceptions. It seems to me that the problem is fairly simple.
If an object exists, then by logical extension there is something that cannot exist where the object exists: empty space. When Johnson kicked the rock, he proved the absence of empty space where he ‘perceived’ the rock. He wasn’t alone – there was a witness – so the possibility that he imagined the whole thing is far-fetched. Our senses might not be perfect, but once an object has been proven to exist it is a simple, logical process to identity it’s characteristics as best we can with our percepting skills and agree on a name. I also think it’s a simple problem to prove an object’s existence outside of my perception. If I leave a rake in my garage, anyone can enter my garage and perceive the rake. In fact, anyone entering the garage and looking all around the room would be compelled to perceive the rake if I left the remainder of the garage empty, assuming the most basic human senses were available to them.
The way I see it Science is a long-term work in progress, and it seems like the more science learns the more it establishes just how little it knows. I’m taking Chemistry right now, and there are a raft of current rules about subatomic particles – very specific, clearly defined rules – that are clearly transient. I’ve written about the Planck Length, and there is also a Planck time measure (the shortest measurable length of time). The physical rules of subatomic particles are fixed based not on their own properties, but on our ability to measure their properties. I understand why we have these limited measures. Our senses, even with the technology we are developing, severely limit our ability to analyze the tiny particles that make us and the massive distances that make the universe. We are a long ways from making Star Wars a reality. I consider it a triumph of human perception that we can even imagine Star Wars at our current level of evolution.