The Certainty Principle

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The Certainty Principle:  Consequences are directly proportional to certainty.  

The more sure you are of anything, the more devastating it is when it turns out you are wrong.  It’s not the certainty itself that does the most damage, it’s what you commit to, when you are so sure.

Very Cold RosesMy wife and I have a saying, now, based on a juicy piece of silliness early in our relationship.  “I’m run-around-the-house-naked, sure.”  The way it happened was… I was certain a song was by Kansas.  She was certain is was by Styx. It was my idea to say I was so sure that I would run around the house naked if I was wrong.  This is how I found the rose bushes behind her house.  It was dark. It was February.  In Maine.  Since then, I have only rarely been run-around-the-house-naked sure of anything.

This principle applies to most things in life, from investments to politics, from religion to love. I am not saying you should be cynical and never commit to anything.  It can be both noble and rewarding to commit with all your heart and soul.  I am just saying it should not be done lightly, and always with your eyes open, prepared to at least accept the consequences if you are wrong.

To admit your own fallibility, but commit anyway, shows courage. The other thing, absolute certainty with complete suppression of doubt, is just blind, stupid fanaticism, which is ugly. So go ahead, when the occasion is right, be certain, have faith, be run-around-the-house-naked sure, but know you may find some rose bushes the hard way. That kind of commitment is brave and beautiful.

Things End

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ChangeSometimes you don’t want them to, but things end.  All the platitudes people hand you, the sorrow they all feel for your loss, that mysterious window they say is opening somewhere else, and that better place where they tell you others have gone, probably don’t help very much.  Death is change, and change is death, so whichever one visits you, you experience them both.  There are no shortcuts, no magic words, no external comforts of any kind that will help very much.  For the rest of your days, there will be a hole, and no matter how hard you try, you may never fill it.

Luckily, for the most part, we all have very poor recall.  We remember stories, not actual emotions.  So, as time passes, the hole becomes more shallow as we slowly forget the depth of the real experience, replacing it with the stories we tell ourselves about it. Eventually, our real memories are so weak that the stories almost feel like they are about someone else, almost. Forgetting is another little death in itself, one that lets us move on.

So things end; then, over time, our experience of them ends, too, leaving only stories and shallow memories. I guess that sounds sad, but it’s not.  It just means we are alive. So don’t wish away the pain. Instead, slow down and carefully embrace it, fully experiencing it before it too is gone.

Every Day

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Blue M&MI have one peanut M&M. It’s blue.  I ignore the world around me and eat it slowly. I pop it into my mouth, but don’t bite down. I savor the sweet outer shell with the slight bitter taste of food coloring. When the shell is as thin as new ice on a lake, I squeeze with my tongue and collapse the shell into the soft, warm chocolate below, all of it melting in my mouth, slowly washing away to the crunchy peanut in the center, releasing just a hint of salt. I finally chomp down on that peanut and begin to chew, letting the peanut flavor mix with the last traces of chocolate. My M&M is finally gone, and I really miss it.

Blue M&M

I have a bag of peanut M&Ms. I eat them one after another, crunching and chewing them  while I watch a movie, never noticing which color is which; rarely finishing one before I pop another into my mouth. Even after the sweet and the chocolate become almost too much, I keep going until the bag is gone. I absently stuff the empty bag in my pocket and finish watching my movie, with just a fading memory of cloying sweetness and way too much chocolate.

Every DayI want to live every day like it is the one blue M&M, savoring every moment, never wishing it away in anticipation of the next day.  Can I live one day at a time, though, rejoicing with each awakening, relishing every meal, enjoying the burn of working my muscles and my mind, fully experiencing all the pleasure I take, exulting in all the pleasure I give, working through the pain I encounter and then remembering the best moments fondly as I finally lay my head down to sleep?

I’ll start next year.

String Cheese Theory

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String CheeseIt is Christmas Day and I should be writing tomorrow’s article. Instead, I am watching Scrooged with my family. So, please imagine an insightful article that examines the very essence of time and space using a humorous metaphor, string cheese. It is so good, everyone who reads it begins to follow The Whey, and it changes our world forever. See you Friday!

The Reason

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Solstice Over WaterThis time of year is special, and has been for a long time; and I mean a VERY long time. For almost four billion years, these have been the longest nights of the year for life in the northern hemisphere, marking the season when the days finally begin to grow longer. This is when we celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Yule, Dōngzhì, and the list goes on through all of human history, with hundreds of current festivals and probably thousands more lost forever in antiquity, and that is just human history, a blink of the eye of less than 50,000 years, a tiny fraction of the four billion year history of life on earth.

At some unfathomable level, we are wired for hope to spring forth with this return of the light, the metaphorical birth of the sun. The roots of our nervous systems that we share with the ancient crocodile, the most fundamental building blocks of our bodies that we share with the mighty oak, they all reverberate with this change in the season, the promise of the return of warmth and life.

There are ancient symbols that resonate with our souls this season, evergreens that are full of life even in the darkest winter, candles and twinkling lights and glowing stars lighting the way; and the ultimate symbol of hope, the birth of a child. With Horus, then Mitra, and now Jesus, for tens of thousands of years we have celebrated the birth of a child that will bring light to our world

The message is always the same. We can be warm. We can be safe. There is hope. It’s a very good message.

What it Means to Know, or Gnosis is not a Spectator Sport

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Original photo by Chrissy Hall

I was speaking with my brother the other day, and he mentioned reading this blog.  He noticed something right away that I had thought was subtle. (Oh well.)  I never actually spell out exactly what I believe. Instead, I just put all these little posts out, some with an agenda, some without, but none with a declarative description of deity or a nice detailed list of rules. So, since I was apparently not so subtle, I think I will just address this head on.

The hard part of describing things is connecting with the “explainee”.  It is easy to dryly describe something in terms of shape, size, weight, texture, but hard to really impart knowledge.  For example, if I say “5 pounds”, that is an accurate description of weight, but it doesn’t give you true knowledge.  If I say “a 5 pound bag of sugar”, that might connect with knowledge you already have.  While “5 pounds” is sterile, “a 5 pound bag of sugar” may bring you the memory of the real heft of 5 pounds, the feeling of the bag of sugar in your hand, the crunchy, sandy feel of sugar that has leaked between the many thin paper layers of the bag, and the dusty feel of the bag itself, covered in the pulverized powder of sugar that has escaped.  And there is more, the sound, the smell, places and times you handle a bag of sugar like the store aisle and your kitchen counter, and it goes on and on.  I could never describe it enough to give you this knowledge if you didn’t already have it, because you have to experience the bag of sugar for yourself to really know it.  Without that experience, all these descriptions are still just that, dry descriptions that, with some imagination, can be built into a partial, and inevitably flawed, understanding of what a bag of sugar is really like.

So, if describing something as fundamentally simple and mundane as a bag of sugar is so difficult, imagine trying to describe a complex spiritual experience, an epiphany, a moment when through meditation, trauma or pharmacology you touch the divine, you inexplicably experience the ineffable.

We usually begin to describe it in terms of shared experience, which if you are describing a truly new experience that your listener does not share, leads to analogies, metaphors and similes. In fact, as soon as we begin trying to tell the story of an experience like that, I think we risk diminishing it. If we are not very careful, our experience will cease to be what it truly was in our own memories, over shadowed and eventually replaced by the story we tell to describe it.

So, I tell stories of my experiences, but they are only a shadow of the actual experience.  I share some of the fall out from my own experiences, how I apply the things I Know, even if I can’t share the actual knowledge.  If something I write resonates with something you Know, or even triggers a new experience for you, then I think that is very cool.  And the most important point?  It is your experience, not mine, that really matters in your life. 

What makes me me?

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Not us.
This is not us. I don’t know who these people are.

I was having dinner with friends at a neighbor’s house and, as usually happens towards the end of the evening, the conversation turned towards the unanswerable questions. (Why are we here? Are we supposed to be here? Do you think we are going to get in trouble when our neighbors get home?) This night’s philosophical discussion:

Do we or anything else actually have any intrinsic properties?

What?

Intrinsic, adj.
… 1. belonging to a thing by its very nature: intrinsic merit.

Extrinsic, adj.
… 1. not essential or inherent; not a basic part or quality of: facts that are extrinsic to the matter under discussion.

The idea is

Can we all be defined purely in terms of our extrinsic properties? These properties can all be described in terms of relationships:

  • I am Johnson and Lynn’s son.
  • I am Tamara’s husband.
  • I am Alex’s father.
  • I love Johnson, Lynn, Tamara and Alex.
  • I don’t like sea urchin sushi.
  • I have brown hair.
  • I talk too much.

Although it may not be completely obvious, even the last two indirectly describe relationships. They are simply symptoms of my heredity and how much I like to hear the sound of my own voice. I’ll get back to this symptom thing later.

Heredity as Environment

Also, note that I am not talking about heredity versus environment. Under this ontology, my heredity is just another part of my environment. An intrinsic property has to go much deeper than my chromosomes.

In a parallel universe

Brutus Salal
Who ordered the Brutus Salad?

(Stop me if you’ve heard this…) If Caesar were Brutus and Brutus were Caesar, what would have been different? My friend started the discussion with this question. He had been following a mailing list on semantics where this whole intrinsic/extrinsic discussion has been going on for months. The argument goes that all extrinsic properties are switched in a parallel universe:

  • Caesar has Brutus’ mother.
  • Brutus has Caesar’s mother.
  • Caesar looks like Brutus.
  • Brutus looks like Caesar.
  • Caesar walks like Brutus.
  • Brutus walks like Caesar.
  • Caesar talks like Brutus.
  • Brutus talks like Caesar.
  • Caesar even smells like Brutus.
  • And, of course, Brutus smells like Caesar.

What has really been switched? The answer, based on this model, is NOTHING! Caesar and Brutus do not actually have any intrinsic properties.

I think

There is a flaw in using this as an argument for the nonexistence of intrinsic properties. It assumes that there is no relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic properties. I contend that all extrinsic properties are, in their simplest forms, only symptoms of intrinsic properties. Therefore, if you switched the intrinsic properties, the extrinsic properties would also change. So you can’t change the extrinsic properties because they are inseparably linked to the intrinsic properties.

Name one…

Defining an intrinsic property, however, is problematic. We have a habit of describing everything in terms of other things. This type of relativistic abstraction has made things like toothpaste and brain surgery possible. Unfortunately, it does not support description of intrinsic properties. In fact, any seemingly successful description of an intrinsic property must, by the very nature of language, only describe symptoms of that property.

Circle

So, I believe intrinsic properties exist. I also think that, by definition, they are impossible to describe. They can only be experienced; gnosis, not logic. I guess the next step is to start a religion.  Oh, wait.