Archive for December, 2011

Defeating fate.

Calvin and Hobbes is spot on, as always.

To understand me, you must first know that I do all of my best thinking in the bathroom. I don’t know why – I think the isolation and the quiet help me focus. This includes on the toilet and in the shower, or just standing over the sink and looking in the mirror. This is where I go when my mind is cluttered and I want to clear it.

One morning a few years ago I was getting ready for school. I turned on the shower, and sat down on the toilet while I waited for the water to warm up (my daily routine back then). While I sat, I thought to myself – what is right and wrong? How do I decide this so that I can choose what to do with my life? This actually happened. I put my hand under the shower to check the temperature, and went in. In the grand scheme of things, how can what I do truly matter? Who is to say that if I killed someone, it would make any difference or be right or wrong? That person would experience pain, but really they are just made up of matter, a combination of physical, electrical, chemical reactions taking place constantly. If I killed someone it couldn’t actually make a difference – it couldn’t be right or wrong, because everything is just how it is, and nothing more. There is no moral objectivity and no meaning. The universe is simply a large Rube Goldberg project, infinite reactions triggering constantly in a large, complicated causal relationship of everything. I stepped out of the shower. I had to tell my friends what I discovered. Surely this was groundbreaking stuff.

Actually a lot of people had figured this out before, enough so that it had a name: nihilism. I knew this word before because it’s on a magic card, but I didn’t actually know what it meant until someone told me I was a nihilist and I looked it up on Wikipedia. I had some issues accepting nihilism. The first of which is that I am a die hard optimist – I try to see the best in every scenario, and it’s hard to see the best in “nothing really matters.” Another is that I am an engineer with a true engineer’s mindset, so that I place a lot of value on usefulness. Being nihilist is entirely useless, because it means that nothing is useful anymore. No more meaningful decisions can be made anymore. There is no such thing as optimization in a nihilistic framework. So basically, I hate nihilism. It goes against everything that I like or believe in. Unfortunately disliking it doesn’t stop me from being a nihilist, because I can’t see any flaw in the logic behind it.

So, why don’t I just drop down and do nothing? Well, nihilism doesn’t give me any direction one way or another in this matter. That is the thing with nihilism. None of my decisions can be guided by it, because it doesn’t tell me to do anything. If it is true that there is no meaning in the universe, then that’s that. Nothing I do will make a difference, regardless of whether or not I am aware that it won’t make a difference. I might as well make decisions assuming that things actually matter.

This whole fiasco also leads me to believe in a deterministic universe. To reference my Rube Goldberg analogy used above; I believe that the universe has some amount of matter and energy, and rules to govern that matter and energy. That’s the end. There is no mystical being controlling things – free will is an illusion, because everything is just a combination of physical interactions. There might be randomness, sure, so that any moment might branch out into different outcomes – but that doesn’t mean that this branching happened as a result of free will to choose. It just happened randomly. Being deterministic and nihilistic, the concept of fate becomes very real to me, and very psychologically influential.

Before I continue, let me make a disclaimer – even though I hate the ideas of determinism and nihilism, I agree with them, and this is always true regardless of how I behave. I live my life as though the universe were not deterministic or meaningless, but I still believe that it is. This is cognitive dissonance going full throttle.

So, here I am – a boy with very unfortunate and depressing beliefs. After introspection, I have concluded that these ideas have shaped me very strongly. I think that they help form the basis of my philosophy of self-improvement, which influences nearly all of my behavior.

My philosophy of self-improvement is central to my character. I am constantly striving to improve myself. I want to succeed academically, I want to have meaningful friendships and relationships, I want to be good at everything I do, I want to find truth wherever I can, I want to do good in the world. I even started this blog so that I could improve the organization of my thoughts. Ultimately the reason that this is such an important philosophy to me is because it allows me to feel as though I am defeating fate. The sense that my life is decided by forces outside of my control is frightening to me, more than anything else. I do not like to feel as though my decisions are being governed by society, or by my parents, or by anyone else. If I make a decision, I want it to be because that is exactly what I mean to do, and the fact that this is not true is terrifying. So, I solve this by being self-critical. With each action I think to myself, is this really what I want to do? Or do I only do it because I have some irrationally influenced urge? If I’m not critical in this way, then I might get trapped by fate. I might be controlled by external forces.

I’m probably getting a bit too wordy here, so I’m going to draw it all in to a relevant and entertaining example. The Friday before finals week, I participated in a UC Berkeley tradition called the naked run. This is how the event works: everyone participating gathers in the stairwell of the main library on campus at a designated time and date (always during the week before finals), we all strip naked (some people wear underwear or accessories – I wore a knit hat and sunglasses), and then run throughout the main library in a circuitous path that covers everything and returns back to where we started, at which point we put our clothes back on and leave. The majority of participants consist of students who live in the Berkeley co-op system, who have a very liberal and hippy stereotype surrounding them. I believe many people would not expect me to participate in this. I didn’t even decide to do it until the day before it happened. I thought about it a bit, and I decided that there was absolutely no reason not to. Very few people would recognize me, and even if they did I don’t really care. It makes very little difference in my life if some random people see me naked, or if my friends who I went with see me naked. The only impediment to doing it is psychological. The only impediment is an unsubstantiated fear of being judged. I did not want this fear to conquer me. I did not want to feel as though there was a door that was not open to me; something preventing me from doing what I want to do. The naked run would be a new experience – maybe I would like it, maybe I wouldn’t, but I knew that I wanted to try it and I refused to let fear stop me. By participating in the naked run I proved to myself that fear does not rule me. I proved to myself that I can use my rational thinking ability to dictate my actions, not fear. In this sense I felt that I was improving myself – I was defeating fate by thinking critically and acting according to what I truly want to do, not according to some other influence. Even though I still believe in determinism and nihilism, this feeling that I got from doing the naked run was extremely empowering – not to mention it was fun and gave me a new and interesting perspective on nakedness. I would highly recommend the experience, if anyone has the opportunity in the future.

I think I’ve written rather enough today. Ideas are starting to get cluttered.

TL;DR – I discovered nihilism in the shower, and I tried to defeat it by running naked through the library. Great success.

My favorite game.

This is my favorite game. In fact, I’m playing it right now.

A++; would play again. For all you readers who are currently approaching finals, I highly recommend this game!