Friday, February 7, 2014

How this life is

Returned from China, and reassembling my psyche in the midst of jet lagged sleep deprivation, a very close friends of ours e-mailed us to let us know their son had fallen off a 30 foot wall.

Badly injured, he is lucky he is alive. This morning (by the date of this writing, Jan. 17) at 4 a.m., I picked up this mother Gretschen to take her to the airport to fly to California and be with him.

 Metaphysics and subtle distinctions between the real and unreal may seem unimportant at moments like these. My returns from Asia have been coincident with various forms of disaster 3 times over the last 2 years. In each case, something completely unexpected happened; all of them were events that scarcely would've been considered credible moments before they took place. No one planned for them; and every one of them immediately required a completely new, improvisational, and emotionally adept away of dealing with the here and now, rather than the imaginary things we spent most of our time obsessing about.

This is how life actually is. Unexpected. Any appearance of consistency is deceptive; and this raises an interesting point. In The Black Swan, Nicholas Taleb argues that categorically unpredictable events of major scale routinely come along to interrupt what appear to be (what we wish were) stable systems; and we don't plan for it. But although these events, in his book, are called black swans, if one thinks about it, unpredictable events of major scale routinely come along to disrupt every life. It is guaranteed. So what appears to be a black Swan—an extremely rare creature—may in fact just be a dirty white one, from the point of view of how frequently we will run into it.

We can count on the unexpected. We can even count on the large-scale unexpected; that is, the unexpected that has a huge impact. The unexpected that knocks us off our feet. So maybe all the swans we think are black—the unusual, unique, show–stopping, once-in-a-lifetime occurrences—are gray; that is, both small unexpected events and large unexpected events belong to a single set called unexpected events, in the same way that an elephant and a shrew are both mammals.

 Objectively, it would be a mistake to say that an elephant is more important than a shrew; Yet because we judge from outward appearances, we reach that conclusion. We believe that nature is a function of scale here; yet this can't be. Scale is always a function of nature. It is in the nature of life for the unexpected to have both small and large effects; and large effects do not have a life of their own. They just look like they do.

So these unexpected catastrophes that come in the day—or in the night—are exactly in the normal order of things. This may not be comforting; but it is true.  To be perfectly fair to Taleb, this is one of the points of his fine book. But he is largely concerned with the practical implications of this question, not the metaphysical ones.

My friend David, when he was discussing the injury of his son, pondered it from the perspective of the law of accident. The event seems random, uninterpretable, emerging from a collision of unknown forces.

Yet from our point of view, on our level, everything that takes place falls into this category: because every future event is an absolute mystery until the instant it takes place, all objects, events, circumstances, and conditions emerge from a collision of unknown forces. As such, one might argue that everything is the law of accident at work. Isolated predictability—for example, flipping a light switch with the reasonable certainty that the light will turn on–is overwhelmed, in the aggregate, by summary unpredictability, that is, the apparent randomness of multiple events when applied in synergy.

 You can see from this brief excursion—the subject actually deserves much deeper treatment—that real life and metaphysics intersect at a nearly molecular level of these questions. There is a philosophical conundrum at the heart of accident; and there are two resolutions. One diverges down the branch advocated by secular humanism in which everything is completely mechanical and nothing has meaning; and the other one takes the path explained in Meister Eckhart's book of divine consolation, where every event is both a specific manifestation of God's will, and a help sent to help us discover our Being within the will of God.

 In the first case, all events ultimately become uninteresting, because they are meaningless and actually pointless; a tale told by an idiot, great sound and fury signifying nothing. In the second case, all events are seen as essential expressions of a higher truth.

We are each served these two plates in life; and we choose one or the other. The first leads to hell; the second to heaven.


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