Category Archives: Philosophy

Escape Velocity

I hated growing up in Murray. As soon as I was old enough to realize that it was possible to leave, I made that my solitary goal. It pained me to see the look on my parents’ faces each time I made this proclamation, but I was absolutely convinced that if I was ever to become successful in life, I would need to situate myself elsewhere — someplace with a thriving tech industry that didn’t stop moving after 9 pm.

Now, here I am at 35 years old still living here and have yet to reach escape velocity. Quite the opposite, I’m actually finding fewer and fewer reasons to leave. You could say that I’m running out of thrust, to keep to my metaphor. To put it simply, I just speculate that I have more to lose than to gain by leaving. It’s simple economics.formula6

 

I’ve lost count of the other individuals I’ve encountered through life who’ve told a similar tale to mine — those who once also counted themselves among the despondent legions of Murray’s youth who vowed to leave this mire without so much as a rude gesture once they had the means. Of those who did manage to leave, the gravitational pull of this place inexplicably drew a good number of them back years later.

Those that haven’t returned yet? Give it some time.

I sometimes imagine that the phenomenon could be used as the main premise of a comedy film in the same vein as Groundhog Day or The Truman Show. I can already hear the trailer now: “Meet Fred, your average, everyday, normal guy. Fred just moved to Murray, KY, a seemingly normal, quiet town. But this particular town has a well-guarded secret. Once you settle there, you can never really leave.” The frightening thing is that those words could actually work for a horror movie as well.

This is a horror film disguised as a comedy.

This is a horror film disguised as a comedy.

... This too

… This too

The distinction between the comedy or tragedy of being bound to a location lends itself to an interesting behavioral experiment. Consider how the classic psychological test of whether an individual sees a glass of water as half full or half empty can purportedly be indicative of whether he or she harbors a optimistic or pessimistic worldview. I believe a similar test can be devised by asking individuals if being tethered to Murray is comedy or tragedy. Do they regard themselves as being blessed beyond measure, or do they feel that they are victims of terrible misfortune?

For the longest time, if you had asked me the Murray question, I would have answered that it was a series of poor decisions, mistakes, and bad luck that kept me rooted here. I would have also answered that God was punishing me somehow by keeping me here to atone for past sins. I spent many sleepless nights driving myself to madness by calculating “what if” scenarios. What if I had made a different decision or reacted differently to a given situation? Would my current lot in life had been any better?

The problem with this thinking is that those “better” potential outcomes would have inevitably led to other unknown potential outcomes. What may appear to have been a better decision in current hindsight may have eventually led to a catastrophic outcome. I am loath to admit it, but the film The Butterfly Effect (based on the eponymous concept in chaos theory) was instrumental in helping me understand this. We all sometimes wish for a chance to go back and change certain things about our past, but there is no guarantee that those changes would have made us any happier.

butterfly effect

Change one thing. Change everything.

Now logically, this all makes perfect sense to me. Emotionally, I’m still working on internalizing it. I have to occasionally remind myself that I am in Murray not by misfortune, but because that’s just how things worked out. Every time I wander into the dangerous thinking that my life should have turned out differently, I have to pull myself back out by reminding myself that things are exactly as they are meant to be.

I’ve been trying to cultivate an attitude of thankfulness to keep myself from going to such dark places in the first place. I have so many wonderful people in my life right now who either would likely not have existed or I would have never met if I had strayed from my path even a little. The thought of giving up those lives and relationships breaks my heart, so even if I was given the opportunity to go back and change things, I would be a fool to gamble away all that I have for some unknown alternative.

So am I glass-half-full kind of person or a glass-half-empty kind of person? In response, I ask, “What is wrong with just being okay with the fact that the glass just is?” Many countless happenings transpired to transform the glass and its contents to their current state. Some were events of nature and others were decisions made by people who were driven by many different motivations. I think it’s presumptuous for us to label the net sum of those happenings as fortunate or unfortunate, as we simply cannot comprehend how those happenings factor into the ultimate future of human existence.

full-glass

 

Instead of judging happenings as good or bad, fortunate or unfortunate, we have to remember that we can’t see the big picture of this thing called life. Or as Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey so eloquently put it, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.” We have to trust that since God is in control, everything will work out in the end for those of us who trust in Him and allow Him to direct our lives.Romans_8-28

Thoughts on Time

When one works a monotonous job, such as in manufacturing, one tends to possess a great deal of time to dedicate to one’s own thoughts as a distraction from performing a repetitive process. Against the relentless symphony of countless machines, individuals are often left to amuse themselves within the confines of their own skulls.

Since I took my current job, I’ve gained a lot of time to think. Some of my thoughts are realistically productive. More often than not, though, I find myself thinking for the sake of thinking -– forcing my brain to produce enough stimuli to maintain consciousness so as not to injure myself by being devoured by some archaic piece of steel automation.brain-gear-2

When I finally emerge from my underground labyrinth, after twelve hours of functioning not much unlike an organic robot, I inexplicably feel as mentally exhausted as I am physically. Though factory work is hardly a mentally demanding activity, I arrive home in a daze after a shift – as if I’m watching my life in third-person. What bothers me most about this is that after a shift, I usually have absolutely no recollection of anything I thought about. I might as well have drunk myself into a stupor and woken the next morning, unable to remember broad stretches of time that I know existed.

I was sitting in such a daze one evening, staring out across the backyard from my deck, when a few scattered, fragmented thoughts began to resurface. Apparently in order to pass the time, my mind had spent hours contemplating the very meaning of time.

Nothing like working in a factory can make you so aware of the impact of time on the human condition. There are instances when time can be your most intimate friend, nurturing you and sheltering you from the world. There are other instances when time is a cold, hungry void – devouring all hope, meaning, and existence.

Modern science has told us that time is relevant. However we as humans, incapable of comprehending all but a fraction of our existences, experience time at the same rate no matter how fast or slow it is currently moving. It makes one wonder if there are ever any fluctuations in our experience of time – like those near-death experiences you hear about where a person’s entire life is replayed before them in a matter of microseconds, or how car wrecks seem to happen in slow motion.

There are many other instances in our lives when our experience of time seems relevant. Let’s examine the time increment of 30 minutes as an exercise. Contemplate each of the following scenarios:

  • 30 minutes of sleep
  • 30 minutes until quitting time
  • 30 minutes in the checkout lane
  • 30 minutes left to live
  • 30 minutes of lunch break
  • 30 minutes of driving
  • 30 minutes locked in a room with someone you love
  • 30 minutes locked in a room with someone you hate

Some of these situations can seem like three hours. Others can seem like only five minutes. This leads us to believe that our experiences of time, just like our experiences of reality in general, are created entirely by each of our own minds. How our minds experience time, therefore, can be observed by noting the occurrence of one of two very different thoughts: “When will this end” and “I hope this never ends.”

quotes-time-is-relative_4566-0We must also remember that time is an entirely man made concept. Man created the concept of time in order to keep everything from happening at once. This is why in the Bible it is written that God has no beginning and no end – He just is. Just like time and space. This brings to the table another interesting question. Does God ever experience time at a different rate than us?

I’ll illustrate this with an example.

I’ve spent many hours lately playing the game SimCity. Like many such Sim games from Maxis, the player has the ability to speed up and slow down time. Sometimes the player slows down time so that he or she can perform some meticulous task. Other times, the player can speed up time in order to “get to the good part.” No matter what speed the player plays at, the “Sims” (the people in the simulation) experience time as a constant.

What does God’s control panel look like? Can He slow down or speed up time like a player running a simulation? Even more mind-blowing, can He pause it? Can He rewind it? And if He does have the power to rewind it (after all, why wouldn’t He?), then we find ourselves asking why would He need to? To correct a mistake? But God doesn’t make mistakes – He is a perfect being! Or is He perfect because He can reverse time and change things as He wishes?1154_1_wandtattoo_play_stop_tasten

I’m afraid these comments may come off sounding a bit blasphemous. An unfortunate side effect of most deep philosophical thought is that it tends to stumble into some very touchy spiritual issues. We know God is perfect, but we don’t know why or how. Our inquisitive minds implore us to find out, but warrant sensitive questions that we’re hesitant to ask.

We are not meant to understand most of our existence, but when has that ever stopped us from trying? Is there a point where the philosopher should stop questioning so as not to drive himself mad? More importantly, has he really gained anything by asking a multitude of “easier” questions only to uncover some terrible question he is afraid to ask?

I suppose out of all this I am starting to grasp the profound paradox of those who contemplate time: In order to understand it, we would need an infinite amount of it.

At this point, I can only point readers to another article discussing the many aspects on the philosophies of time. The concept of alternate timelines is nearly if not more mind-boggling than the concept of alternate universes. If that’s not enough for you, check out topics on chaos theory such as the Butterfly Effect.the-butterfly-effect

From what I gather, part of chaos theory touches a great deal about how slight variations in a system can cause huge variations over time. For example, if I accidentally type the wrong key while typing this sentence, and have to use my backspace key so that I can type the right letter, how will that impact the future 50 years from now? Did my use of the backspace key at that particular moment somehow trigger or prevent a cataclysmic event? It makes us wonder how even our most subtle actions and inactions are shaping the future in significant ways.

I think I’ve rambled enough. I leave it to you to extract any meaning from it, despite my unnecessarily long introduction.

More on Orwell – Morewell!

Through all my rambling in my last post, I never mentioned that 1984 is actually a pretty good novel once it actually gets going. I can see how a reader might be turned off at how slowly the pace moves until about half way in. Regardless of how boring it might seem at at the start, I still recommend that people read it simply to open their eyes to how easily we give up some of our most basic freedoms and the consequences of doing so.1984-front

My primary reason for reading 1984 in the first place was to discover the story behind “Big Brother,” a term that seems to be thrown around a great deal by the media and conspiracy theorists. It turns out that Big Brother is just a name and a face given to the concept of around-the-clock surveillance of the individuals of society.

In 1984, the government of Oceania monitored all citizens through devices called telescreens (televisions that watch you – yeah it sounds like a Yakov Smirnoff joke) to ensure they weren’t engaging in illegal activities, behaving erratically, or fostering anti-government tendencies. Since the government needed a friendly face under which to operate, they created Big Brother, their benevolent leader and protector.

Propaganda was also spread that stated, “Big Brother is watching you,” which is just a masked way of saying: “Be careful what you do, because the government always has its eye on you.”1984-Big-Brother-Poster

Knowing now what the concept of “Big Brother” is, I’ve come to realize that it is now used primarily by the media as a fear mongering tactic to shy people away from some new technological advance – especially technology that makes use of personal information or communications (i.e., Google’s GMail*).

1984 shows us that we should remain ever vigilant about what rights we surrender. In this day and age, by simply using certain technologies, we effectively waive certain privacy rights. Fueled by recent films such as The Matrix and I, Robot, fear of becoming slaves to our own technology is very real. Such films inspire us to ask one of the great philosophical questions of our time: What negative impacts are new and existing technologies making on our lives?

At first thought, it’s easy to say there aren’t any negative impacts. However, to consider the question further, perhaps it may be helpful to think of the state of our lives should certain technologies (e-mail or mobile phones, for example) become suddenly inoperable. In my opinion, over-reliance on technology is a negative impact.

So indeed we have already sacrificed pieces of ourselves for our modern conveniences. How many more sacrifices are we prepared to make in the name of technological advancement? More importantly, how close are we to the world of 1984 by making those sacrifices?what-is-right-is-often-forgotten-by-what-is-convenient-quote-1albert-einstein-quotes-appalingly-obvious-technology-exceeded-humanity-toxic-relationship-destroyer
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*According to many misinformed people, someone working for Google is sitting at their computer, reading peoples’ e-mails, and deciding what advertisements to put up based each message’s content. In actuality it is a computer algorithm that scans for keywords from the text – not much different than anti-virus software scanning messages for viruses or software spell-checkers searching for misspelled words.

No Names

I finished George Orwell’s 1984 shortly after finals week, but I’m only now sitting down to write about it. Considering some of the recent happenings in the news, it seems an appropriate time.

Like it’s cousin, Brave New World, 1984 is a dystopian novel that outlines a grim existence for the future. 1984 has come and gone, but does that not reduce the potency of Orwell’s critique. It’s not difficult to see society heading in the terrible direction of 1984’s circumstances. Every day we give up certain freedoms to maintain social order and harmony.

For all the technical inaccuracies and impossibilities of the movie Hackers (which would have been more accurately named Crackers), I admit that I found the film at least mildly entertaining. There are bits and pieces of philosophy stuck in there – so brief that if you blink, you’ll miss them. In a deliberate nod to Orwell, a character named Emmanuel Goldstein delivers one of the most philosophical quotes in the movie:

Screen-Shot-2014-04-18-at-18.51.11You could sit at home, and do like absolutely nothing, and your name goes through like 17 computers a day. 1984? Yeah right, man. That’s a typo. Orwell is here now. He’s livin’ large. We have no names, man. No names. We are nameless!

The amount of digitized data has increased exponentially since that film was made in 1995, so it’s probably safe to assume that 17 computers is now a gross understatement. From the government, to our insurance companies, to our financial institutions, to our commerce – our livelihoods have been reduced to mere numbers in databases. We have become the little ones and zeroes that comprise some huge system that we have little or no control over.

Our identities have become commodities. Unscrupulous harvesters sell our e-mail addresses to spammers by the millions. Advertisers collected demographic information on us such as where we shop and what we eat so they’ll better know what to throw in our faces next time we open our eyes. And now come to find out most of our major financial institutions handle our personal information with very little regard as to how it may be misused. This is clearly illustrated by institutions such as Citigroup, a company that does not even bother to encrypt sensitive customer data before sending out into the world in a UPS box.

We have become so detached from our own identities that it is now possible for others to use them for their own maligned purposes. All it takes is the knowledge of a few sets of numbers that can be obtained quite easily.fortunetellerBW

It’s obvious now that we can’t simply throw away all these conveniences that we’ve come to rely on. It’s not like we can just stop using our driver’s license numbers, credit card numbers, and social security numbers and go back to addressing each other by name. That may have worked when America was nothing but a network of small towns and villages connected by dirt roads, but certainly doesn’t cut it in today’s fast-paced global economy.

Perhaps using biometric verification systems are the future of secure commerce – a scanner at every terminal that verifies you are indeed who you say you are and approve of whatever transaction that’s been initiated. Of course, there will still be tech-savvy identity frauders out there who are able to capture and reproduce fingerprint or retinal signatures for whatever diabolical means, so I’m not suggesting that biometrics would be and “end-all” solution. I do believe, however, it would put us in a better situation than we are in now.

After all, right now all it takes is digging through some victim’s trash or mailbox and doing a little internet research to pull off a good identity fraud.

Well I seem to have digressed a bit from talking about 1984, and this post is already long enough, so more on Orwell another time.

On Socrates and Monkeys…

Question everythingOne of the most important lessons that the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates taught was to question everything – not necessarily to question and ultimately overthrow authority, but to always endeavor to understand why things are the way they are, and why we do the things we do. I found a nice little story that clearly illustrates this point.

Psychologists have conducted what has become a classic monkey experiment: They put a number of monkeys into a large cage, in the center of which they place a banana hung above an insulated staircase. Eventually, one of the monkeys will climb the stairs to try to get the banana. When he does, all of the other monkeys receive an electric shock through the metal floor of the cage. This is repeated for several days every time a monkey tries to climb the stairs.

Subsequently, after the shocks are no longer administered, when a monkey tries to approach the stairs, the other monkeys will attack it to keep it from climbing them. They have learned to protect themselves by keeping their fellow monkeys away from the staircase.

Next, one of the monkeys is replaced with a new one that has never been shocked. The new monkey will try to ascend the stairs, but the trained monkeys will attack it to stop it. The new monkey quickly realizes that if it approaches the stairs, it will be attacked, so it learns to stay away.

One by one, each of the original monkeys is replaced with a new one. As each new monkey approaches the stairs, he is attacked by all of the monkeys, even the ones who were never shocked. They have learned the behavior from the other monkeys. Each new monkey in his turn learns to attack any monkey who approaches the stairs, even though it has no idea why it does it.

When all the monkeys have been replaced, and even though none of the monkeys in the cage has ever been shocked, no monkey will approach the stairs. Why? If you could ask one of the monkeys, he’d probably tell you “That’s the way we’ve always done it here.”

Keeping this little story in mind has helped me examine how things in my life operate and question the reasons why. It is said that understanding is the first half of solving a problem, and though not all things in life are necessarily “problems,” understanding them certainly helps one deal with them more effectively, and often, more efficiently.