"There is no 'try'...there is only do, or do not." ~ Yoda

"There is no 'try'...there is only do, or do not." ~ Yoda

Preparing myself, my family and my friends for the Fourth Turning.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Reasons Why (Part One)

All humans face two existential challenges in their lifetime.  The first is the search for meaning, for a reason why we exist.  Some purpose.  Some plan.  For most, this answer is given by one religion or another. In the case of most of the world's religions this ultimately means belief in a divine being or beings, and the divine beings provide the purpose - however unknowable that purpose may be.

Unfortunately, for individuals such as me, religion does not provide an answer.

Now, this post is not a discussion on religion, and these first few paragraphs are all I am going to say about the matter at this point - but it is important to note that the Way I approach this first existential challenge is substantially different than the approach of a believer in a deity or deities.

I don't believe that any deity exists to define the greater purpose - the reasons why are a separate discussion - and so my answer to the second existential question which all humans face of necessity informs my response to this first challenge as well: not believing in discoverable divine purpose for my existence, however structured, I must find some other answer - and that answer for me turns out to be the answer to the second existential question.

The second question is 'how will I choose to live my life?'

This implies a great many things, and encompasses the sum total of all the behaviors one has exhibited, moment to moment, over the course of a lifetime.  Every choice in life - every one, no matter how small - is a significant choice. The outcome of that choice affects the possibilities of the next moment, and the subsequent choice then presented.

Each choice informs the structure of our being as it emerges from the universe, becomes aware of itself, and begins to act.

Even if one shies away from the deterministic universe, and assumes randomness exists and affects us, one can see that nonetheless each choice, without fail, places one in a position to be affected by the next choice - and even if randomness at that moment is injected into that choice and changes that outcome - that changes nothing, unless randomness is injected into every choice.

Clearly, randomness has its limits.  I can choose to leap without a parachute from a moving plane, and randomness can intervene on the way down and somehow save me - it could happen, in a completely random universe. But ours is not such a Universe.  The universe has predictable Laws that dampen the impact of randomness: gravity, thermodynamics, the weak and strong electromagnetic forces, the nuclear forces, and the single direction of time.

These Laws overcome quantum chaos in a predictable way.  Thus, the trajectory of our choices does define who we are and who we may become.

Certainly, randomness plays a part, but only a small one.

Thus, we must be mindful of our reasons for making choices, large and small.  We should undertake choices using logic and planning.  We should accept that while randomness exists and may play a role in the outcome of choices, its effects are unpredictable, and thus it is an uncertain ally.

With logic and planning, we can control who we are becoming, and therefore, who we may become.

Contrarily, we must not fall prey to Vulcan stoicism.  We must allow ourselves to feel our emotions, to understand the extent to which emotion informs our choices.

Thus, my answer to the second existential question is that I want to live a life of deliberate connection with what it means to be human.  To connect with the how of my life, with the Way, provides the answer to the why of my life. To this end, I wish to trace a path that leads to awareness of myself, and weave the fabric of my mind with the fabric of my life, so that I am immersed in my environment, aware of it, aware of its awareness of me, aware of its impact on me, and on my opportunities and choices.

How I choose to respond will tell me who I am.  What values I hold.   By examining choices past, I may draw conclusions about who I seem to be, and about who I am in the process of becoming.  If one examines one’s past choices and pays particular attention during the making of current choices, then who one is becomes apparent, viable, defined.

In this regard, a deliberate life may be lived.  And to live a deliberate life is the answer to the question of ‘how will I live my life”.  This is the basis behind Taoism and Buddhism.

One may protest that I have failed to answer the first question. But I have.  You just haven't understood

Stipulating that I am here for no discernible reason whatsoever does not invalidate the fact that I am, nonetheless, here. Finding myself here, I make the observation that at least one conscious entity in the universe exists to observe.  I note that I have the ability to make decisions.  I note that certain decisions have resulted in the past with feelings of well-being, and certain others have resulted in feelings of ill-being.

I note there are other Entities who share similarities with me and with each other, to varying degrees, some of whom appear to consider themselves as having existence as well, and who appear to acknowledge my existence.  I note that I interact with these other entities.  I note that I am able to infer the existence of other, un-encountered entities.

I note that randomness appears to be a factor.

Seeking knowledge about this place in which I find myself, I begin to ask questions.   The answers I gain inform my understanding of physics (the rules of my world), my understanding of the mind (how mind is emergent from chemical processes), and my understanding of relationships: how I am affected by all other purposeful Entities, and certain non-purposeful Entities with whom I come into contact.

Thus, there are three fundamental Boundaries on each of us as we go about our daily lives and make our choices:  physics, the biochemical and perhaps quantum processes that invoke the "I", and the impact of choices made by all other livings things. Randomness is not a boundary; it is merely another actor.

All other apparent boundaries arise from one of these three primary Boundaries.

Now, I have learned I am bound.  I now know three things - that I exist, that I am bound, and that Others appear to exist.

Using this knowledge, I begin to define myself by acquiring more knowledge: where may I go, and where may I not?  What limitations are imposed upon my physical structure?  Which of those limitations are caused by a characteristic of my physical structure, and which are imposed by the universe?  How has my physical structure come to accommodate or overcome some of the rules, and how much interaction between the rules and my physical structure has determined the form of my physical structure?

What thoughts am I capable of?  What perceptions? Why am I able to reason at all, when other, equally lively entities cannot?  Does that fact that I am capable of thought imply purpose to my existence?

What affects me?  What displaces my choices?  What provokes my choices? How does the universe affect the observations I make?

If to you this sounds like a description of a child’s development into an adult, that’s because it is.  From the moment our consciousness quickens, we are on the path to answer these questions.  To live a deliberate life means to understand that the process does not stop with adulthood – but too often, that is what happens. 

We become adults, and we cease to examine ourselves.  Socrates warned of the consequences of an unexamined life.

As an Entity, as I examine my life as I am living it and gain insight into these subordinate questions, I become aware that a particular systematic approach to choices tends to produce more feelings of well being than alternative systems.  I associate well-being with certain actions, and therefore seek to take more of those actions.

If I am deliberate in this analysis and approach, my life will tell me how it should be lived, and if I am capable of understanding this, then I am capable of structuring my life so that feelings of well being are as constant as possible.

If I focus my life towards this end, then; towards achieving harmony with my environment, accepting the confines of the Boundaries, and with a firm understanding of how the mind arises out of chaos, then I am capable of achieving the fullest potential of this Entity "I" as defined entirely by its starting point and those choices presented within its lifetime and subject to the Boundaries and the Others.

To achieve its fullest potential is the goal of all life, whether that life is aware it exists or not.  A tree exists to reach its fullest potential, reproduce if possible, and then decay in order that its physical structure may be recycled into new or replacement parts for other Entities as they emerge.

If I am aware that I exist, that I am bound, and that I am accompanied, and if I have learned that I have both a potential and a capacity to reach it, then I may undertake a path of deliberately attempting to reach that potential.

This does not require the existence of a divine being.  It is enough to say, “I am here, and one of my choices is to excel at understanding and improving my existence” simply because it is the unequivocal truth about every entity in the universe – it exists to become as much of itself as possible.

In this manner, I see that I may perhaps dismiss the question of ‘why’ as irrelevant.  It does not matter why we are here; that we are is enough.  There is no pressing biological imperative to answer this question; plenty of life gets along just fine not only without knowing the answer, but also incapable of even forming the question.

Therefore, the quest for the reason for existence is misguided.  Until at least one Entity capable of self-awareness came along, there was no ‘why’.  Why does not exist absent an intelligent observer.   Since most of life of which we are aware lacks the capacity to observe its own existence, and since such life existed long before ‘we’ came along, we may conclude that the answer to the question of ‘why’ confers no particular benefit to life.

From this we may conclude that simply because our physical structures (both collectively and individually) have developed the capacity to be self-aware and capable of forming the question, it does not follow that an answer to ‘why’ is possible simply because the capacity to ask it has arisen.

The ability to even ask is an artifact of physical processes and evolutionary pressure.  Being self-aware is an accident of life, an emergent aftereffect of the survival strategy of developing a refined set of perceptions. An answer is not implied simply because there exists a question.

Therefore, one may dismiss the question of why one is here as irresolvable as well as possibly irrelevant, and instead focus on the second of the two questions as the most important of the two as it has the virtue of being answerable.

It is in this grasping at the answer to the second question that we may discover that it unexpectedly answers the first question.

As an Entity emerges, it begins seeking paths to satisfaction.  As it seeks paths to satisfaction, it either prospers or falters.  Prosperous results and faltering results produce reactions. As an Entity successively alters its behavior the overall trajectory of its existence either prospers or falters relative to the optimum outcome possible at the moment of inception of the Entity, under the conditions at the moment of inception, and subject to the Boundaries.

It is possible to conceive of a starting set of conditions for an Entity and an optimal path through that Entity’s existence, that results in a definable, testable, best-outcome. It does not matter if it is an ant or a man, or a tree for that matter.  There is a set of starting conditions at inception and once that is stated, the Boundaries provide limits on the number of possible trajectories of the lifelines of the Entities.  Among those trajectories, since they are finite, one must represent the ‘best’ outcome as defined by some objective criteria. 

Since we are self-aware, we can aid the innate action of all life towards optimization by providing feedback to our personal sphere of existence.  We can influence the inputs.  We can do this on a grand scale, altering our personal environment in fundamental ways. We can make observations and draw conclusions, and inform our future decisions with the data from previous decision’s outcomes factored in.

We have the luxury, unlike any other life of which we know, of deliberately and knowingly seeking to optimize our lives.  It thus appears that the ability to ‘think’ therefore confers some survival advantage. 

Since thinking confers survival value, I can conclude that thinking about the path of my life will confer survival value since future choices will be better made. I can conclude that there is an optimal path.  I can conclude that observation and testing can reveal that optimal path.  I can alter my behavior to in an effort to as closely as possible reach full potential. I can make efforts to avoid or reduce the unwanted effects of choices of other Entities on my Entity, and to promote the wanted effects.

Thus, by seeking an as close to optimal as possible outcome, I define the how. I live my life seeking to make the most of it, out of all possible outcomes.  This is the path to a fulfilling life: seeking, learning, understanding and attaining as far as it is possible to do so, the most objectively optimal outcome possible.

If I next realize that this is the process that all life undertakes, with the very same goal – optimization of that organism’s existence - with or without self awareness, a capacity to question, and the emergence of ‘why’ as a concept, then I can understand that my own ability to reason is just one strategy among all strategies.

Since other organisms get along just fine without this ability, it follows that it is not necessary to survive to answer the question ‘why’; indeed, it is not even necessary for survival to form the capacity to ask it.

Further, absent the capacity of at least one Entity in the universe capable of at least formulating the question ‘why’, the concept of why cannot exist.  Positing a universe where, in fact, no sentient being exists and yet life can be assumed to remain we may indeed conclude that the answer is irrelevant since dependent upon the state of all Entities in the universe, the question may not even exist.

The question 'why' does not represent the seeking of a fact, as a factual answer would have an existence independent of the question.  Yet we do not find this to be so.  By accepting this, we unchain our minds from the desire to connect with something greater than ourselves, and can begin to fully become ourselves.

Thus I am freed to focus on the how, and by understanding that I am like all other life – I strive to be more of what I am for no other reason than that it is the nature of all life we know – I can understand that I am no different, from the fundamental perspective of optimization of an organism’s lifespan, than a tomato plant or a snail.

The tomato and a snail ‘want’ an optimal life; I want an optimal life.  The difference is I know it. But the tomato and the snail appear to not suffer from lack, not only, of knowing why they exist, but also from a lack of the capacity to even ask it, apparently to no ill effect upon their pursuit of optimization nor achievement thereof.

For a tomato or a snail, the ‘how’ is the ‘why’.  There is no other choice!  The sole reason for the snail’s existence is to optimize its experience of being a snailf.  Since knowledge of why and the capacity to ask it are not needed for this, we may conclude they are pleasant artifacts of evolution: it is nice to be intelligent and self-aware, but that does not mean that I must ask and answer irrelevant and unanswerable questions in order to confirm a meaningful life.

Since I am like all other life in that in me the drive for optimization is innate, and since I have shown that for most life, the how provides the why, and since I have shown I am like most life, I may then conclude that I am also like most in life in that my how defines my why.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Lady and the Tramp

Lady -

it is time, I think, to turn my wits once more to writing you on a regular basis.  It is this form of communication, at which be both excel, that will best allow us to navigate the shoals of this house project, and work more effectively as a joint team.

It seems to me that in this relationship, your are as much a Lady as I am a Tramp - your concerns and vexations are of the prim and proper type: detailed analysis of courses of action, refinement of plans, deep, emotional concern over the validity of our choices, repeated revisits of settled material.

You want to ensure value, fairness, and predictability. You expect proof of the bonafides of each and every participant.

These are rational and valuable concerns.  They prompt deeper inquiry into matters, which can, as my conversations today with various engineers shows, lead to unexpected insights.

They indicate paths that should be followed to their logical conclusion, if only to ensure that a course of action dismissed as unfeasible, is, in fact, unfeasible.  You force me to examine conclusions and require deeper explanation, force me to hard conversations that must be had.

This is the value you bring: oversight and audit.   It is a tremendously valuable component and ability - to be able to force participants in a business deal to be logical and open and disclosing, so that everyone understands the transaction, and accepts the terms.

These methods, this flinty-eyed New-Englander approach to business is a sound and valuable characteristic, and one that I personally lack.  Thus, your characteristics and skills and mindset neatly fill a hole in my person.  I respect this.  Although it is frustrating for me to go through the process, I usually find, at the end, that you were right.  Whenever you demand a second review, there is usually more to the matter than meets the eye.

(On a side note, it's possible that this set of affairs is related to the fact that you were a field grade officer, with field grade responsibilities, while I retired as a captain, never experiencing the weight of higher command.  You have been trained to have and have had a level of concern for detail, as a staff officer and field grade commander, that I never experienced during my years as an officer.)

Thus, you are rightly our guiding partner in detailed financial matters.

In contrast, I as the Tramp bring to the table a certain demand for expediency, for resolution, for practical solutions that are achievable now as opposed to optimal solutions that arrive too late.  I am of the "I'm hungry, I want to kill something now, not spend time preparing an elaborate plan while I slowly starve" category.

I value efficiency over aesthetic, where demanded.  I value aesthetic over efficient where economically  possible.

This is not to say that I am not appreciative of a certain quantity of 'luxury' - things I want but do not, technically, need.  Where a marriage of the aesthetic and expedient are possible, I will always prefer an elegant solution over an inelegant one.

That said, my immediate concerns are of course more primal - do I think that a threat exists? if so, how do I counteract that threat?  What event or condition is likely to challenge my continued existence, the survival of my progeny, or my right to be self-determinate? 

In raw terms, you want to know how well we'll exist; I want to know if we'll exist, and upon whose terms.

In this regard, the matter is an almost-classic example of the dynamic between male and female.  You wish to ensure that minimal resources are expended; that resources expended return true value, and that wiser contemporaries are consulted before any final decision is made.  This is the female response to long-term crises: reflect upon the current environment, and if reflection provides cause for concern, demand more thorough investigation.

It restrains impulse. It slows the process.  It demands justification.  It prevents precipitous action.  This is valuable: war should only be necessary as a final resort.

In contrast, I wish to ensure our continued survival, our ability to influence the survivability of our children (and grandchildren), our participation in a just and civil society, and our ability to restrain government from becoming an oppressive force in our lives or the lives of our descendants. 

I believe that substantial, protracted, and irresolvable social turmoil is in the forecast for the not-too-distant future.  I predict that such turmoil will be concentrated in urban areas lacking access to primary resources.

I want to be away from such conditions, and I want to offer a place to which our children might retreat if pressed. I wish to be part of a community that is poised to meet the challenges of the next several hundred years. I wish to be part of a community that is rational and deliberative, as opposed to reactive and volatile.

I wish to ensure our children's survival.  I wish to prolong our survival.

To this end, I wish to partner with and support those members of my community who share my beliefs and goals.  I wish to understand their motivations and imperatives.  I wish to become accepted as a member of the community, in hopes that such acceptance will extend to our progeny.

This requires thinking on a local scale - not unlike endeavoring to understand the motivations of the Bosnians, the Croats, the Serbs, each in their separate and distinct world-views.  Every interested party has a perspective, a list of grievances, and a list of demands.

Thinking locally requires an understanding that we are currently outsiders in a tightly-knit society, and that our reputation will precede us.  It requires an understanding that pride in ability and devotion to open pricing means that what is offered is expected to be assumed to be reasonable.

There is an ethic in place which is largely foreign to our experience, although not to our thinking,  We may have heard it discussed, but have never directly experienced it: that my neighbor is my ally, and thus will be expected to both grant, and expect to receive, every consideration in business matters.  In all, the net effect is that we are recently come to a community where the 'old ways' hold sway: where honesty is accepted a predicate, because the society is so small that any dishonesty would be widely and readily discovered, to the detriment of the perpetrator.

Everyone knows everyone, and there is a tacit sharing of information.  For example, today, the engineer with whom I consulted apprised me of an individual in the area - a mason - who should not be trusted, as he fails to complete projects.

We come to this area almost by accident: we are where the costs of the land were reasonable, and where our specific requirements were met.  We find ourselves strangers in a new community eager for new members and apprehensive as to the impact of those new members.  It is not up to them to develop an acceptance of us.  It is not up to us to develop an unequivocal acceptance of them and their ways.  It is for us to mutually understand each other, provide space where appropriate, and joint resources where necessary.

If we accept that our current residence in Georgia, for the long term, is an unsuitable structure in an unsuitable location, then we can accept that a new location must be found. Having found such a location, we are now faced with certain logistical tasks.

These tasks require the commitment of resources: money and will. It is easy enough to transfer resources.  The real fight lies in ensuring that resources expended provide a return.  This is where you excel - in paring down the ornamental from the necessary.

At the conclusion of the project, we should hope that AJ and his firm walk away satisfied with their efforts and their compensation  We should hope that we are satisfied with the product and the cost.  We should hope that we have added value to our adopted community.

We should hope; indeed we should expect, that if we have made a commitment to our comminuty via selection of local labor and firms, we in return expect a commitment demonstrated by above-average quality and reasonable pricing.

We don't want to be welcomed as 'marks'; we want to be welcomed as partners.

That said, we must at some point accept that the professional opinions offered are realistic, accurate, and fair,  We should cease to question, compare and contrast various pricing methodologies, and instead focus upon the goal of receiving value proportional to value given.

At some point we have to trust.  We have to believe.