The Tabling of Turns

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Caveat Emptor: I’m wildly cynical.

For a long time, or for what’s truly a brief time, I’ve been reflecting on the epistemological issue of what I’ll call The Mortality of Thought. What I mean is that so many ideas throughout history, ideas which were universally accepted in the past, are now so comically and obviously incorrect that it seems impossible that we believed them in the first place. This phenomenon is so prevalent throughout the annals of the past, as well as the present, that it also seems impossible to have faith in anything that we currently believe.

Now, Skeptics have argued since ancient times that we cannot know anything. According to Wikipedia, “Skeptics argue that the belief in something does not necessarily justify an assertion of knowledge of it. In this skeptics oppose Foundationalism, which states that there have to be some basic beliefs that are justified without reference to others.” I’m not looking to tackle the epistemological issue of whether or not we can truly know anything; if I could do so successfully, I’d probably get a Nobel Prize. Instead, I’m assuming a non-Skeptic theory that there are things that are knowable, and asking the different question (which relies on the aforementioned theory) of how do we know which things we know.

The problem is that, outside of a priori laws of logic and mathematics, the sense I have is that we cannot be sure about any empirical thing. I have no beef with the legitimacy of the theoretical process of Induction; my complaint is centered around humanity’s proven inability to properly execute Induction. With this in mind, the conclusion I draw is that, at best, the rationale we have behind every assertion we make and every action we take is no more than an educated guess. Everything I believe, at this moment in time, might very well all be true, but there’s also a possible world, with debatably higher odds, in which all of it is false.

The first example I always think of involves the philosopher Immanuel Kant and his idea of a Copernican Revolution. In using this phrase, Kant is referencing how, at one point, our society believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, and we extrapolated many different theories based on that belief; it was a major cornerstone for our metaphysical framework. As we all “know” now, though, Copernicus came along arguing for a then-heinous position that the Sun was the center of the Universe, an idea around which we now construct our theories of reality.

Kant brought up this whole concept because he anticipated his epistemological views would cause a Copernican Revolution of their own; he wasn’t far off, if at all, as his writings put an end to a central debate in Modern Philosophy and have forever altered our idealogical conceptions (by the way, how fucking baller is that?! That’s like Babe Ruth calling his home run but 395 times more impressive). Yet technical philosophy is surely not the only place we can look for instances in which a once-firmly-held belief was eventually proven wrong.

Examples from childhood are the easiest to cite. Spoiler alert: Santa Claus is not real. Ditto for the Tooth Fairy. Everything you cared about in high school, and the large percentage of those things that are now unimportant. What is it that today you staunchly affirm, or care passionately about, that tomorrow you will doubt or feel is irrelevant? Or even forget about entirely? There seems to be no reliable method to this mayhem.

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It is at this point I need to bring up a different but related idea, as the anxiety caused by mortality is a hydra that rears its heads in multiple forms. Many people struggle with the fact that they will eventually die. A related worry is that nothing we do matters because every impact our existence has made in this world will at some point be lost. Butterfly effect excluded.

Alison Rosen, a co-host on The Adam Carolla Show, a podcast I listen to frequently, expressed this very notion a few months back:

“I was walking down an old historical street, and I was like, there are so many people that came before me, and are gonna come after me on this street and I felt very connected to history. But I also had this sense that like, I am such a blip, this moment is a fucking blip, in terms of everything, and then it went from, it was this very transcendent moment, but ultimately made me feel almost depressed, because it’s like, I just suddenly, my mortality was so apparent to me…. in the grand scheme of things, whatever it is, even this awful thing that you’re dealing with, does not matter.”

Adam Carolla, the show’s lead anchor, responded with a concurring sentiment: “Not only does it not matter, YOU don’t matter. Like I got good news and bad news, you don’t matter, so no one cares if you were beating off. The bad news is you don’t matter. No matter what, you don’t matter. You can win the Nobel Peace Prize, you don’t matter.”

The Ace-Man is right – from the vast perspective of history’s totality, nothing we do is of any importance. Whether a woman quits or doesn’t quit her job, or a couple does or does not decide to have a second child, is wholly insignificant. We’re all just a bunch of marbles in Men In Black.

Never did I feel more strongly about this sentiment than when I was watching the Notre Dame football game last weekend, and I saw an advertisement for both good citizenship and the university of ND itself. The advert described how a female student of the college had created her own charitable organization dedicated to reaching out to and helping the seniors in her community. After 3.95 minutes of heartwarming clips and heavy-handed voice-overs, the commercial finished with a statement along the lines of (paraphrased) ,“Notre Dame: truly believing that EVERYONE can make a difference.”

Now that’s a 395!

Surely this girl is a much better person than I am. I imagine that this virtuous female’s every action is far more admirable than anything I ever do. The world would be better if we all behaved along those lines. But that being said, after the commercial ended I started ranting about how bogus it was that anyone could think this girl had made a true impact. On a micro level, she’s an absolute role model and has made a world of improvement in peoples’ lives, but on a macro level, she hasn’t done squat.

It’s not as if she’s alone in that. All our actions are macro-meaningless.

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When I initially began writing this Blogcat, I found all of this depressing; it’s hard not to when you’re neck-deep in cynic waters. Basically, I thought, it’s impossible to know whether or not I’m making the correct decision, but it really doesn’t matter either way, and thus, life is futile. Woe is me.

However, a more recent podcast from the Ace-Man created an impetus for a change of perspective. Carolla states:

“Life is really not that complicated. It’s a way to sort of fool yourself with a bunch of distractions until you die.”

What’s funny is that this statement strikes me as being perfectly in line with everything I’ve been discussing in this post, yet for some reason, I find it incredibly uplifting – I even typed up the quote, printed it out, and hung it on the wall in my office at work.

I’m not quite sure why these two sentences transformed my skepticism into optimism, but my theory is that it’s somewhat due to a lowering of expectations. Instead of trying to make a difference, or attempting to find substantial meaning in it all, simply acknowledge the intrinsic futility of the entire effort, move on, and remain distracted.

As an avid NBA fan, I find this all reminiscent of the concept of a Role Player, someone who’s not a superstar but plays an important part on a team. Perhaps you’re Jamal Crawford, a 6th man coming off the bench as a scoring threat on your team’s second unit. Maybe you’re Thabo Sefolosha, a lockdown defender who could go the entire game without scoring but covered the opposition’s best player like tarp on rain delay. Whatever you are, I find it important to recognize that we’re all role players; we’re not Lebron James. Nobody is, not even Lebron himself; 200 years from now, he’ll be an entry in a dusty record book (or more likely the internet) that most 17 year olds will have never heard of. But that’s fine; it is what it is. In recognizing this state of affairs, we can be Nick Collison, who knows he’s a role player and plays within himself, as opposed to Nick Young, who does not.

I’m not a superstar. I’m a role player. My team is going to lose. Fuck it, let’s play the game.

I think what’s so great about my new, odd, optimistic outlook is that it proves point #1, that you can’t be confident in your beliefs. I felt very negative about that theory’s initial construction, as I couldn’t be confident that I knew anything, but similar to The Tragedy of the Commons (a related issue I didn’t have time to discuss here), I realized that in most cases it’s only a theoretical concern, and I came to an understanding about The Mortality of Thought – while it’s a fascinating concept, it’s not the most practical issue I’ve ever faced.

More importantly, though, the unreliability of empirical judgements isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a way, it’s the opposite. As this essay might have made clear, there are things I believe to be the case that I wish were not so. I have feelings which I wish I did not feel. If all my thoughts were permanent, as it were, there would be no hope that these unfortunate things could change. I would know, unequivocally, that Kobe Bryant is destined for the Hall of Fame. I would always feel that life, devoid of meaning, is depressing. Yet that’s not the case. I now find life’s irrelevance uplifting, and there’s been some fabulous work done to degrade Bean’s legacy.

Hell, there’s even a chance that during my initial edit of this piece I’ll disagree with something I’ve written. And when that happens, I’ll say to myself, “My, how the turns have tabled.”

5 responses to “The Tabling of Turns

  1. This is all very impressive. Philosophy, epistemology, and, equally beloved and critical to any passionate person’s existence, the NBA. But lemme throw down on the “Mortality of Thought” for a second. A very apt name, by the way. The mortality of thought is certainly a legitimate recurring feature of human history and thought. But in my estimation, it typically surfaces in matters of philosophy, science, metaphysics, and other 0ntological frameworks that we try and fit onto existence. In these cases the mortality of thought is necessary and inevitable because it preserves the mystery of existence. However, there is, to pull from Aldous Huxley–for the time being a far better and more accomplished mind than mine–an “infinite, changeless reality beneath the world of change,” which he refers to as the Perennial Philosophy. This is the eternal truth that many religions and philosophies have pined after for centuries, and perhaps connected with sporadically. To boil it down to dangerously simplified terms, it is the unbreakable, eternal bond between consciousness and the universe/space. As you probably know, this is what Hinduism preaches.
    Factual truth is always subject to mortality and obsolescence; and as Adam and Allison know, human life is also pitifully subject to mortality and historical obsolescence. But while factual truth and human life–both, perhaps not coincidentally, things that can be “confirmed”–may always perish, spiritual truth, which can never be confirmed, is changeless and not subject to the mortality you speak of.

    –KOP. lol.

    • Agreed. Real interesting stuff here, KOP. Just to be clear, I’m not arguing against the existence of Perennial Philosophy, that there is hard, immutable truth. It seems, reflecting on what you wrote here, the point I was making wasn’t that humanity can’t connect with that Perennial Philosophy, but more that we don’t have a way to verify whether we ever have. We might have stumbled on it coincidentally, but there’s no reliable way to double check.

      I love this exchange, btw. This is exactly the kind of stuff I was hoping for when we created this website in the first place.

  2. Nice write up! I came to some similar conclusions a few years ago through a combination of painting and reading a chunk of William James’s “Essays In Radical Empiricism”. Basically when you’re painting you end up looking really closely at things and breaking them down into abstract forms in an effort to better describe them on canvas. For example this haphazardly folded blanket in front of me can be understood by breaking it down into a series of flat, colored, interlocking triangles. Painted on a canvas and taken in their totality those triangles will appear as a series of lit forms that add up to something that literally looks like the blanket in front of me. Doing this regularly brought me up against a whole bunch of questions about our ability to know things based on our senses. Is that blanket how I conceive it to be, or is it just a host of sensory data with some other true form that I can’t perceive? If this person I’m talking to can be visually described with the same interlocking forms as the room they’re standing in- and in fact the forms they are built out of are contiguous with the ones of that room- are they necessarily a being separate from the space surrounding them? Am I necessarily a discreet entity separate from the space and people surrounding me?

    The main conclusion I took away from all this is that it doesn’t really matter whether the world and people around us have a configuration hidden to our senses. Whether the universe has a form distinct from how we perceive it, there isn’t any compelling reason to behave as if it does. That blanket may be a blanket, or it could just be a bundle of sensory data I’m receiving. Either way if I get cold I’ll put it on and it will make me warm.

    I’ve become really interested in constructive drawing and anatomy since then. This approach to visually synthesizing data runs on the assumption that there are underlying and consistent structures that everything is built on. People have distinct features, but we’re all built along the same anatomical blue print. While everyone appears different, familiarity with this blue print will allow you to predict where their features will be relative to one another, and even what arrangement of flat shapes on paper will approximate them.

    Obviously this kind of consistency isn’t definitive proof that reality is similar to how we perceive it, but it makes behaving as though it is a fruitful endeavor. You could smash your hand repeatedly with a hammer to see if it ever won’t hurt, but there’s no real incentive to.

  3. I guess the common thread between your post and my comment is taking comfort in informed non-answers to troubling philosophical questions.

  4. It is a difficult thought for many to entertain, this idea of our immortality–and beyond that, as you’ve mentioned, the frank insignificance of our own existence. There is a dangerous path of nihilism that presents itself to those who wish to concentrate on such concepts. There is also the approach you’ve chosen to employ: accepting your role, and playing the game rather than trying to change it. Move on and remain distracted, as you put it. Though, this too can be as detrimental as the nihilist with no regard. To remain distracted evokes the very anxiety that arises when contemplating the mortality of thought. What are distractions if not temporary aversions from a larger, more worthy issue?

    This brings me to your response to KOP’s thoughtful comment. It is true, we really have no way of knowing whether we’ve seen the truth–in forms, reality, or some permanent realm of ideas. Then again, perhaps that is because we just haven’t seen it yet. Perhaps death itself is the connection with that Perennial Philosophy, for some it comes sooner than others. I often think about this when I remember our friend Jeremy, or any of the people I’ve known who ostensibly died young. We can live an undistracted life, see reality as it truly is, and only then may we move from here to there–that infinite, changeless reality beneath the world of change.

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