A daily game of roulette

As someone who’s suffered from dysthymia—not infrequently veering into full-blown depression—since he was a teenager, and whose personal philosophy is borderline nihilistic, and who suffers from chronic pain, and whose marriage failed, and who spent three years in prison in Florida for trying (naively, it must be admitted) to help treat other people who have chronic pain, and who lost his license to practice a career he’d worked at for a very long time, and—this is the most unkindest cut of all—who doesn’t see his children because they don’t really want to see him (one of them won’t even interact with him); and as someone who bothers to keep going at all mainly just because he’s writing books and short stories, none of which may ever be read by anyone other than family members and possibly old friends…as such a person, each day for me is very much like a game of Russian roulette.

The cylinder with which the game is played is very big, to be sure, and there are many, many more empty chambers than that one full-but-oh-so-consequential one.  If there were not, the game would have long since ended.  Nevertheless, if one plays that lottery often enough, one is sure, eventually, to “win,” and I play it daily. It’s been a very long time—subjectively, it seems like a lifetime—since I’ve had a day without at least a moment in which I suspected that permanent oblivion would be a net gain when compared to its alternative.  There’s plain few days in which I never feel like just lying down in the middle of nowhere and never getting back up, just letting the elements do their implacable work. There are many days in which I fantasize about wading into the Atlantic Ocean (conveniently nearby) and then just swimming out, as far as I can, until I can’t swim anymore. (This latter idea is appealing because it causes very little inconvenience to others; one might as well not be rude).

I’m not sure what keeps the other chambers of that roulette gun empty, to be frank.  It’s probably nothing more than that mindless survival drive that was brutally driven into my biology by the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of natural selection.  There certainly isn’t much inherent to the continuing struggle that makes it seem anything but a pointless, Sisyphean task.  I often feel like one of Tolkien’s Ringwraiths:  they do not die, but neither do they grow or obtain new life; they merely continue, until at last each breath is a weariness.

What sensible person would bear these whips and scorns when he could his quietus make with a bare bodkin?

Well…so far, I would, it seems.  I’m far from convinced that it’s the correct choice.  I spin that metaphorical cylinder every day, and I am, quite honestly, not afraid of the day when the hammer falls on a live round…not in any real, deep way.  But the damnable organism that I am just mindlessly carries out its functions, at high and low levels alike, without so much as a “by your leave.”  It’s most inconsiderate.

I don’t really know what to say or do about all this.  I’m not really asking for help.  I’m a qualified medical doctor, though no longer in practice, and I understand the neurology and the neurochemistry and the psychology involved better than 99% of the general public.  I’ve called crisis hotlines before and was once handcuffed by imbecilic PBSO deputies for my trouble—causing nerve damage in my left wrist that lasted almost 2 years—before being brought to a squalid and pointless place where the limitations of our mental healthcare delivery systems became even more viscerally apparent to me than they had been before.  I don’t mean to go through that adventure again.

I’ve been medicated (the latter occasion a case in point), and I’ve been in therapy, and I’ve used neural stimulators and meditation.  I’m quite well read in the philosophy and science and fiction and poetry and music on the subject matter, let alone the trite, banal, condescending, and sometimes frankly insulting social media memes that relate to it.  I sincerely doubt that anyone has any arguments about the topic that I’ve never encountered nor thought of on my own.  After all, it’s a subject that’s consumed me for three quarters of my life, and I’m a voracious consumer of information, who has little to no social life to distract him.

I honestly don’t know that there is an answer, and I’m not even sure what question I should ask.  Nature isn’t obliged to be satisfactory of our wishes or convenient for our needs.  I don’t really even know why I’m writing this.  Maybe it’s just to avoid misleading anyone about me.  I have the faculty of humor, and tend to respond to things I find funny, and to try to make amusing comments, and to show appreciation for good intellectual points, and for noteworthy events, and for fine people and organizations.  I have a strong sense of curiosity, and I like to understand things, and to share matters that seem interesting.  Because of these facts, there are times when I probably seem upbeat and positive, happy and amused; indeed, there are probably occasional moments when those descriptions really do match my mood, if not my character.

Yet the game is always there, every day.  The cylinder spins, the hammer is cocked, the trigger is pulled, and the firing pin strikes—so far—an empty chamber.  I’m not talking about a real gun here, of course (I no longer can legally own one); it’s a metaphor.  But it’s a true metaphor.  The specifics of the game are not literally as described, but the stakes are just the same.  And one cannot, in principle, keep playing forever.  I frequently can’t help but wish that some happy turn of fortune would take the game out of my hands, preferably in a slow, degenerative, and painful fashion.  But such is not likely to be my fate; I come from a line of mostly physically robust forebears.  I guess the slow, degenerative, and painful process for me is the very thing I’ve been describing, the thing that makes me wish for something more direct and literal.  I don’t know whether that counts as irony, but it is certainly an impressive little twist of the knife of fate, and that, I guess, it the only other weapon with which I am met, even as I spin the wheel of the first one each day.

The undead of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld say that life is wasted on the living.  I’m often inclined to agree with them, at least about myself.

Not all the time.  But a lot of the time.  At least once a day.

Whether I need it or not.

Playing with space-time blocks

According to General Relativity, our experience of space and time is a bit like seeing shadows in a higher-order, four-dimensional space-time.  This is probably not news to many of you; the basics of Relativity have become almost common knowledge, which is no doubt a good thing.  But many people may not realize that the tenets of General Relativity and Special Relativity, with their abolition of simultaneity or any privileged point of view in space-time also imply that the entire past, and the entire future, of every point in space and every moment in time, already or still exist, permanently.  I’m not going to get too much into the how’s of this—I refer you to, and heartily recommend, Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, which has an excellent explication of this notion.

The upshot of this principle is that, in a very real sense, our past is never gone, but is still there, just where it was when we lived it.  Similarly, the future is also already in existence (applying time-specific terms to such things is a little iffy, but we use the words we have I suppose, even though we must accept them as metaphors).  In this sense, a human life is not an isolated, ever-changing pattern in some greater, flowing stream so much as a pre-existing rope of pattern in a higher-dimensional block of space-time, like a vein of gold running through a fissure in a rock formation.  Its beginning is as permanent as its end.

We know that General Relativity cannot be absolutely and completely correct—its mathematics breaks down at singularities such as those in the center of black holes, for instance.  But within its bailiwick, it seems to be spectacularly accurate, so it’s not unreasonable to conclude that it’s accurate in the above description of a human life—indeed, of all events in the universe.

But what does this mean for us?  How does it impact the fact that we experience our lives as though the sands of the future are flowing through the narrow aperture of the present to fall into the receiving chamber of the past?  How does General Relativity interact with consciousness?  We seem to experience the present moment only as an epiphenomenon of the way fundamental principles translate themselves into chemistry and biology as measured along some fourth-dimensional axis.  We can’t decide to reel ourselves backward and reexperience the past, or fast-forward into the future, even though it seems that our existence has much in common with the permanently-encoded data on a digital video file.  We cannot choose to rewind or lives any more than can the characters within a movie we are watching.

Similarly, according to this implication of General Relativity, we could not, even in principle, have lived our past differently.  Were we to rewind and then replay events, they would work out exactly as they had before, just as a movie follows the same course no matter how many times you watch it.  The characters in a movie might learn later in the film that they had made some tragic error, yet when you rewind the show, they revert to their previous selves, ignorant of what they are always ignorant of at that point in time, subject to the same story arc, unable to change anything that they did before.  Likewise, it’s conceivable that, when our lives end—when we reach the point where our pattern decomposes, diffuses, and fades—we may go back to the start and reexperience life again from the beginning.  (This depends heavily on what the nature of consciousness is).  Indeed, we may be constantly reexperiencing it, infinitely many times.

Though this seems to be a kind of immortality, it’s not a particularly rewarding one, as we wouldn’t gain anything no matter how many times we replayed our lives.  For those of us with regrets it would be a mixed blessing, at best.  For those who have endured lives of terrible suffering, it seems almost too much to bear.  But, of course, reality isn’t optional.  It is what it is, and there is no complaint department.

Ah, but here’s the rub.  We know, as I said, that General Relativity cannot be quite right; crucially, it does not allow for the implications of the Uncertainty Principle, that apparently inescapable fact at the bedrock of Quantum Mechanics.  Quantum Mechanics is, if anything, even more strongly supported by experiment and observation than is General Relativity; I’m aware of no serious physicists who don’t think that General Relativity will have to be Quantized before it can ever be complete.

But of course, as the name implies, the Uncertainty Principle says that things are—at the fundamental level—uncertain.  How this comes about is the subject of much debate, with the two main views being the “interaction is everything, the wave-function just collapses and probabilities turn into actualities and there’s no point in asking how” that is the Copenhagen Interpretation, and the Many Worlds Interpretation, originated by Hugh Everett, in which, at every instance where more than one possible outcome of a quantum interaction exists, the universe splits into appropriately weighted numbers of alternate versions, in each of which some version of the possible outcomes occurs.  It’s hard to say which of these is right, of if both are wrong—though David Deutsch does a convincing job of describing how, among other things, quantum interference and superposition implies the many-worlds hypothesis (see his books The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity).

But what does the Everettian picture imply for our higher-dimensional block space-time that is at once all of space and time, already and permanently existing?  Are there separate, divergent blocks for every possible quantum divergence?  Or does the space-time block just have a much higher dimensionality that merely four, instantiating not just one but every possible form of space-time at once?

If this is the case, why do we conscious beings each seem to experience only one path through space-time?  Countless quantum events are happening within and around us, with every passing Planck Time (about 10-43 seconds).  The vast majority of these events wouldn’t make any noticeable difference to our experiences of our lives, but a small minority of them would.

This is the new thought that occurred to me today.  It’s thoroughly and entirely speculative, and I make no claims about its veracity, but it’s interesting.  What if, whenever we die, we start over again, as if running the DVD of our lives from the beginning yet again, but with this important difference:  Each time it’s rerun, we follow a different course among the functionally limitless possible paths that split off at each quantum event?  Even though most of these alterations would surely lead to lives indistinguishable one from another, everything that is possible in such a multiverse is, somewhere (so to speak) instantiated.  Reversion to the mean being what it is, this notion would be hopeful for those who have suffered terribly in a given life, but rather worrisome for those who’ve had lives of exceptional happiness.  At the very least, it implies that there would be no sense in which a person is trapped in the inevitable outcome of a given life.  You can’t decide to behave differently next time around, but you can at least hope that you might (while reminding yourself that you may do even worse).

Of course, all this is beyond even science fiction—well, the earlier parts aren’t, just the notions of a person’s consciousness reexperiencing life, either the same or different, over again.  But it was and is an interesting thought to have on a lazy, early Sunday afternoon in the spring of the year, and I thought I would share it with you.

Flat-Earthers and “hate speech” are good for us

I don’t know how often most of you notice the occasional noises of Flat-Earthers online, and particularly on social media, but I notice.  Encountering such absurdities can at times lead a reasonably educated person to feel that the world is going mad, that society is collapsing, and that—despite the cornucopia of information available to us—humans are breathtakingly stupid.

However, I’ve recently been reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” and it gave me a new insight:  The fact the we encounter such vociferous and seemingly ridiculous expressions of contra-factual ideas is a sign of the health and strength of our discourse, rather than its deterioration. Continue reading “Flat-Earthers and “hate speech” are good for us”

One little old mayor

There’s an interesting scene in the movie The Dark Knight in which the Joker confronts Harvey Dent in the hospital, and conveys to him what he sees as the misplaced and irrational prioritization of alarm among human populations.  The scene is wonderful for many reasons—it’s well-written, well-directed, and brilliantly acted—but I think it is also conveys an important point about which many of us don’t think carefully enough.

In the scene, the Joker says that he’s noticed that “nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan’.  Even if the plan is horrifying.”  He then adds, “If tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gang-banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blowing up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’.  But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!”

This is a deeply important point, because it highlights a profound illogic in our moral prioritization of who is important, who is to be protected, who is an “acceptable loss”, and who is “hands off.”  We become more outraged—or at least more exercised—when one of our “leaders” is threatened or even killed than when soldiers, or even ordinary citizens, are put in jeopardy.  This is not morally defensible. Continue reading “One little old mayor”

Requiem for a Zombie Father

I was listening to a podcast today in which two men discussed, among other subjects, the state of being happy simply for the happiness of the person or people you love, even if that happiness was without you, or was despite you (not a negative type of “despite,” just a happiness that was fundamentally orthogonal to your existence), or was in a situation that traditionally is associated with jealousy.  They were speaking specifically of a notion associated with the “polyamory movement,” the concept of Compersion:  A feeling of joy when a loved one invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship.

One of the speakers said that, while he thought he would have trouble ever feeling real “compersion,” he nevertheless thought that, if he were to learn that he was about to die, he would certainly want to know that his wife and children would be happy after he was gone, even if that meant knowing that his wife would marry someone else, as long as doing so would make her happy, and the new man would be a good stepfather for his children.

I felt a strange and disturbing pang when I heard this, because it seemed to me that his hypothetical scenario described my situation quite well…except, of course, for the fact that I haven’t died.  I’m a sort of zombie version of that speaker’s contrafactual: dead but still wandering around, too stupid to realize that I’m no longer among the living.  I do not grow or obtain new life; I merely continue.

I truly do want my family to be happy, though.  All of them.  And maybe they really all would be happier if they didn’t have to worry about some pathetic revenant who’s too stupid to know he’s no longer part of the world.

It’s a strange thing to find myself envious of a hypothetical, alternate version of myself—one who died, perhaps, of some relatively short-term illness or accident, after which all the other events in the lives of my former wife and my children played out exactly as they have in this reality.  But I do feel that it would have been so much easier—for me, and probably for them—than the Nosferatu “life” I’m living.  It’s all but unbearable to be the dead husband and father and yet still to be around to know it, to feel the chill and putrescence of one’s own dead flesh, to ache and yearn for the life one used to have, and that others have, but to know—despite not wanting to know—that it’s all gone forever, and to know oneself to be now merely a source of pain and worry for those who have made it clear that they are happier without an animated corpse in their lives.

What is one to do in such a situation?  I’m really not the sort who believes in reincarnation, unfortunately, so I don’t expect to be revivified.  It’s just not the way I’m built; it’s not in my nature.  I had my life, my family, the people I loved the most in all the universe, but now that’s over.  They’re gone—or, more precisely, I’m gone.  I died some years ago, and somehow, I’m still upright.  I suppose there are some who might admire the stubbornness of a cadaver who is unwilling, or unable, simply to accept reality and die, but personally, I find it a contemptible.  Then again, I’ve never been my biggest fan.

In “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Dumbledore says, “Do not pity the dead, Harry.  Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.”  I think he was right.  Death is, finally, nothing to be afraid of or to be pitied; it’s simply a state of oblivion.  It’s the restored default, a return to the ground state—the deleted file, the song after it’s through being played, the dance after the dancers have left the floor.  Life, on the other hand—especially the life of a walking corpse—can be a sheer cacophony, a lurching, drunkard’s walk.

What is one to do?  Where is my answer, or at the very least, my release?  Where is my Van Helsing, with cross and wooden stake, to end my career as an undead thing?  I’m waiting.

In the book “Red Dragon,” Will Graham says of Hannibal Lecter, “He’s a monster.  I think of him as one of those pitiful things that are born in hospitals from time to time.  They feed it, and keep it warm, but they don’t put it on the machines and it dies.  Lecter is the same way in his head, but he looks normal and nobody could tell.”  Though I’m certainly neither a murderer nor a cannibal, I think I know what he means.  I think I know how that feels.

I’m tired of being in pain, of knowing that I can never get back even a semblance of all that I’ve lost.  I miss my children so much, but I have nothing to offer them.  I even miss their mother as well, but I clearly have less than nothing to offer her.  Every breath is a weariness.

In defense of scientism

[Originally posted on robertelessar.com on July 20th, 2017]

On this 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I want to talk a little bit about science, and how it, in principle, can apply to nearly every subject in life.

The word science is derived from Latin scientia, and earlier scire, which means “to know.”  I am, as you might have guessed, a huge fan of science, and have in the past even been a practitioner of it.  But science is not just a collection of facts, as many have said before me.  Science is an approach to information, and more generally to reality itself, a blend of rationalism and empiricism that calls on us to apply reason to the phenomena which we find in our world and to understand, with increasing completeness, the rules by which our world operates.  Personally, I think there are few—and possibly no—areas into which the scientific method cannot be applied to give us a greater understanding of, insight into, and control of, our world and our experience. Continue reading “In defense of scientism”

The problem of attribution

The era of Facebook memes bearing quotes, to say nothing of the siloing and compartmentalization of views experienced in online life, has led me into a minor quandary, and I want to get my thoughts out on the matter, for your consideration and potential feedback.

I am a great fan of the idea of intellectual property, being, as I am, a writer of both fiction and nonfiction.  The writer has the right to what he or she writes, just as any artist has for his her or works of art, and musicians have to their music.  I think most people agree that it’s unethical—and certainly it is illegal—to use another person’s created work against his or her wishes, especially if one is making money by doing so.  Even works in the public domain—including those that were written so long ago as to be considered ancient, such as the works of Homer, Plato, and Sophocles—shouldn’t be reproduced in whole without giving credit to the author.  We should remind ourselves of the source of such works, and give credit to the memory of those who have written words that we found moving; certainly, we must give credit to the creators who are still living, especially if we are going to make money in the process.  We should also, in the latter case, get permission, and usually we should pay them. Continue reading “The problem of attribution”