Saturday, September 22, 2012


I think that's the great thing about books, writing, the internet. The pure scholasticism of it. The realm of ideas passing between minds, distilled into these symbols (words) that can transmit info without confusion, if the time is taken to be clear. 

I recently left this as part of a reply to a poem over on Cym's blog. I was feeling rather expansive just then, very positive. I think I'm still riding a crest from yesterday, a half day at work, hanging out with my roommate, and commemorating my summit of Katahdin, northern terminous of the Appalachian Trail, now these four years past, remembering my trail buddies and the best six months of my life. My heart is full.

But anyways, as I think about what I wrote in reply to Cym, I wonder. I have long been a writer, in the sense that I feel I can communicate best in that way. Firstly, I'm an introvert, and not a natural at small talk and chit chat. Not in a freakish way, but let's look at it this way: you read through this blog, it would seem I have a lot to say, but in person I'm quite reserved and don't tend to expound on things like I do here. I do sometimes, expecially with people I know well, and I can do the small talk thing too, but often it just doesn't seem worth the effort. (Not to mention people rarely seem to want to give you the time to really speak your side, and a friend who can listen to an opposing view is a valuable thing. I'm looking at you, Dan and Clayton).

For some reason, the connection between my mind and my fingers (typing) is far more clear and easy than that between my mind and mouth. I'm not much of a talker, it doesn't come easy to me. I sometimes even get tripped up with my words, and at that point just look to find a fast end to the conversation. In a way it's like my mouth can't keep up with my mind. But most of the time, the issue is just the natural flow of ideas. It's easier in writing. I find I can order my thoughts better, and thus communicate more clearly and be understood better.

Thus my comment. In writing, you can be more systematic, more rational, more exact. You can lay out an argument or position, then go through and address every objection and quibble, without leaving things out, without ambiguity. In contrast, discussion often falls into emotional appeals and a general lack of clarity. That was my problem with those Intelligence Squared debates I posted about last time. I don't know all the logical fallacies, not by far, but I noticed many were used, such as appeals to authority, appeals to emotion, ad hominem attacks, and so forth.

So, in general I stand by what I said in the comment, but in the end, it is wrong. Debates of all kinds are basically fatally flawed from the start. Everyone has a unique perspective. Two people can be looking at the same exact tree, but they see it differently; besides all their past experiences that shade the present experience with memories and emotional influences, they are literally seeing the tree from different angles, because their eyes are not at the same point in space, and maybe even have different sensitivities to light, color, and visual acuity. Fundamentally, everyone lives in their own world, because a "world" is, in fact, actually only an image of the world (worldview), with all of the "world" actually existing in one's individual consciousness, and based on one's unique perspective and experience.

This is why they say never debate politics and religion with family and friends (a dubious statement, really). I mean, look at our political atmosphere. The Democrats and the Republicans are not even discussing the same things. They are so trapped in their respective ideologies, they literally cannot see any other way of looking at things. (And while I feel the Republicans are far more out of touch with reality than Democrats, in general the vast, vast majority of both are still living in American Dreamland). They are talking right past each other.

So. Any good debate or argument must start with definitions of terms. Often when this is done, you find much greater agreement. (The I2 debates, by the way, don't do this, which was irritating. They just throw a statement out there and say "go"). If you don't clearly deliniate the topic, and don't define your terms, you are necessarily going to be arguing about totally different things. So every debate eventually devolves into semantics. Into definitions. Into "what exactly do you mean by "is"?

But, definitions are arbitrary and self referencing. Every word in any given definition can also be found in the dictionary, with its own definition, with more words that are in the dictionary... It's a big circle jerk of concepts, afloat in a sea of the undefined. In reality there are no divisions. Just as the tree that you see is not, in fact, twenty feet away but is in fact in your consciousness, with no space between you and it, so also are definitions impossible. Nothing exists in isolation.

Even in a more traditional perspective, that tree is not a separate thing, it is a pattern within a larger pattern. It is one with its wood, but also one with the birds that nest in it, the air it inhales, the water it absorbs, the fungus it supports in the soil, the soil itself, the sun... To define "tree" you have to define everything. And "universe" cannot be defined, because that would be to draw a line between universe and... what? The universe is everything, so no line can be drawn.

So in the end, how could even the most systematic, written argument be anything but an infinite dictionary/encyclopedia of the entire universe? It could never be finished, because absolute precision would mean one of two things. More and more definitions, more and more disection and analysis (literally "to cut apart"), which will go on forever. Even the atoms ("unbreakable") are continually subdivided. Or on the other hand, just shut your mouth, put down your pen, and see the real clarity.

The most precise argument is the one with zero definitions, the whole as given, not as understood or analyzed. To science, a tree is ridiculously complicated, with complex inner workings, into microbiology, chemistry, and basic physical laws, plus connections with the greater ecology and even into geology and astronomy. But it's only complex when you try to talk about it in the rational, serial, step by step way. Take it as a whole, take it as it is, and it's so simple a child gets it.

The tree stands in the field, declaring only "Thus!"

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Filter Bubbles

::wipes dust off of blog::

Wow, sorry for the absence. I keep feeling like I want to write, but don't. I've been too busy working (12 days straight!), plus two classes and in my off-time, just consuming too much media to produce any of my own; a serious problem, but the product of low energy. Part of it, too, is a sort of depression. I think I may be having inklings of a midlife crisis here. Nothing full blown, but it's there.

One thing is that I'm getting to the age where I'm beginning to realize that my life is not going to be some epic thing, I'm probably not going to change the world, write the next great novel, do anything seriously earth shattering. Youth has that boundless optimism, but experience comes along and proves it wrong. I am an ordinary man, not some maverick, not likely to be a creative genius or do anything too amazing. I am likely to be one of the nameless massmen of the dustbin of history, who did nothing more noteworthy than to simply struggle to stay alive until he died, forgotten. It's kind of a disturbing notion to accept.

Plus, I'm starting to realize just how self-centered my life is. I've been stressing for more than a decade about what I'm to do with myself, both big stuff and little stuff. What to study, what career to choose, which trail to hike, which book to read, TV show to watch, etc etc. I've talked plenty about ego on here, but it's becoming distressingly clear just how caught up I am in myself. My life has become a sort of monument to my self. Here I read all these books, trying to learn things that have no actual application except to aggrandize my own self-image as a know-it-all. I live for myself, which is to live for nothing at all, yet I don't know how to get out of it. I feel I've gone too far that I've forgotten how to get back.

Partly, the problem is that my love of knowledge has become a sort of addiction to information. I remember back in the day, between 18 and 21, discovering Eastern religions, waking up to the political world (9/11 was my coming of age in that respect), learning about Peak Oil, inklings of cultural collapse, and all that stuff. It was like a punch in the face, everything seemed to open up and be illuminated. But the glow has worn off. I keep hoping that the next beautiful idea will change my life. Yet, it has largely devolved into a pointless addiction. The internet is especially bad for this. I can lose hours on Wikipedia without realizing it, following links. It is no different with books, though. And it's all a reflection of my own selfish interests.

I recently watched a debate on PBS, a show called Intelligence Squared, debating this proposition: The internet is closing our minds (podcast here). Interesting debate. I fell toward the "pro" position, though with some reservations. It seems to me (and those arguing the "pro" position) that often the internet becomes sort of a hall of mirrors, a giant narcissistic image of the self. Do we not more often search out things we agree with? I never go to FOX news website, but have often gone to places such as CommonDreams, alternative news and information. People filter their own information intake in this way.

Furthermore, there are filter bubbles (a TED video, whose speaker was also in the I2 debate), thanks to the "personalization" of Google and social media. Google tracks the sort of stuff you search, builds up a sort of database or rubric, then when you search something new, guesses at the sorts of websites you want to see. A liberal and a conservative will get different results when they search "Obama," the latter getting more stuff slanted towards the birther "debate" and Obamacare. Up to 60% of first-page links on a Google search will be personalized this way. Yet it is not generally known among internet users that this is going on, because you have to put two computers side by side to see the differences.

Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter can be bad in this way too, or worse. They are watching what you're watching, and helping tailor your internet experience. But basing the future on the past, so to speak, is idiotic. It is probably more important that we don't just keep plodding down the tracks of our old ideologies, but that we are exposed to new ideas.

Of course, you can still find anything on the internet, read any viewpoint you want, and expose yourself to all kinds of new ideas. And it is a wonderful way for people to connect. Atheists used to be all alone, usually; but now, they can get online, meet whole forums full of other atheists, and not feel so isolated. People into paleo-skills can find people with like interests and tons of resources to further their skill set. It's pretty amazing, really.

But this was my reservation against being on the "pro" side; basically the internet isn't closing the American mind, certain web companies are. Filter bubbles do exist, yet they aren't absolute. This is my experience. I've learned tons from the internet, though I also admit that I tend to gloss over dissenting viewpoints, often dismissing them out of hand as closed-minded conservative shills for big business. I read some of them, and enjoy a good debate, but I don't always have the time or inclination. And like any human, I prefer to have agreement than dissent. And with all the trolls and flamers out there on the interwebs, a good serious debate can be hard to come by, and the comment threads under an article are not conducive to anything but making quick sniping comments. It's just not the right format.

In the end, the "pro" position won. It was an good debate, proven by the fact that at the end I was less sure of my position than at the beginning; but I'm not sure it deserves the status of being called "Oxford style" debate. I feel that at Oxford, the debaters would present more clearly, define the question and their terms more strictly and explicitly, and be less informal. But it would be great to see political candidates debate that way.