23 November 2014

More on Being vs. Knowing

We've been talking about participation for a while now, and we've seen how the world, like animation, is like a giant machine where everything works together. Something that is a reality in science is also a reality in art and math, and the more connections we make, the better idea we have of how the real world works. Speaking of math, if you remember graphing rational functions in high-school, you already know what the observer effect is. No matter what value you punch in, x and y will never cross the asymptotes. They just get closer and closer to infinity. No matter how big your number is, you're never going to cross that line, the same way that no matter how accurate your thermometer is, you're never going to know the actual temperature of the water. The Observer Effect is present everywhere you go, science just happened to give it a name.

But lets go for another analogy. When you break a bone, you go to the doctor.  But in order to see inside, they have to take an X-ray, and those radioactive waves can literally tear up your flesh. The doctors do their best to cover you up and protect you from the radioactivity, but no matter how careful they are, they're going to do a little bit of damage to you.

But what would you do if your soul was broken?  Where would you go to? Often times we go to stories and poetry. To extend this analogy, poets are surgeons and words are their instruments. Every time you speak you are operating, tearing the flesh of reality.  Of course, we look to the great reality surgeons and trust them not to tear our fragile world to bits in the operation of explanation, because they have gone through special training and use clean, precise words that do as little damage as possible. But no matter how careful they are, there is no getting around the fact that they are cutting a living thing, opening up the soul so they can get inside and learn to understand the human being better. And there will be blood. Everything comes with a price.

It's not a pleasant process, and that's why many writers and artists go insane or kill themselves or are just downright bitter.  Take it from me, they're not just being jerks (at least most of the time). Anyone who's worked on a creative project is familiar with that twist in their stomach when they sit down with a pen and paper. After all, what if you cut some jugular vein and they whole thing bleeds to death? Did not Hemingway say that writing was merely bleeding on paper? Reality is simply not the same after you've blogged about it.

Another reason why artists can be unpleasant company is because they see the rest of the world walking around like the observer effect doesn't exist. The truth is, people miss out on a lot of life because they are too busy recording it.  Whenever there's a wedding or a baby or a trophy, all the cameras are out. This is an important phase in so-and-so's life, they say, and we have to capture the memory. 

The ironic thing is that captured memories aren't memories at all. Have you ever wondered why nobody remembers being born? When you're a baby, you don't think about existing, you just exist. That's because infancy is pure life--and life isn't about knowing, it's about being. Life is movement, and the moment it ceases to move, it ceases to be life. It's funny that we use the phrase "capturing memories" and don't realize that is exactly what we are doing. Whenever you write something down, or draw a picture, or take a video, you're capturing those memories in a bottle. We try to hold them still, but it won't be long before it slips right out of our hands, leaving behind only a skeleton.

C.S. Lewis wrote that this world is only a shadow of the real world in Heaven, like a photograph. Look at it this way. Let's say the leaves you see on a tree are only a photograph of real leaves that you'll see in Heaven. When you pick one and press it between the pages of a book, you're not preserving a real leaf, you're preserving the shadow of a leaf. Eventually that shadow-leaf will die and what you have left is a relic, a representation of something that once was.  If you think about it, you're not making a photograph but a photograph of a photograph, a memory of a memory. And now you see how easily observing a thing can change it: every agent of observation brings you farther and farther away from the real world. You're already changing reality just by reading these words on a screen.

You may get the impression from all this that I think that creating memories of any kind is bad. If I said that, I'd be a liar, because I do it every day. In fact, in the old testament, God commanded His people to create memories, instructing them to build altars and make sacrifices to constantly remind them what He had done for them and what He was going to do.  The Great Physician was operating on the souls of his people, and it was almost always painful.  Also, take note that animal sacrifices were bloody. Did I mention there would be blood?

But it had to be done, it always has to be done, because we're fallen creatures and we've managed to forget all about what's going on down there in the soul, and the only way we can find out is by opening ourselves up and looking. The real problem with memories came when people began dismissing the idea that God even existed, which left them with the vague feeling that they were forgetting something, but they weren't quite sure what. As a result, they made it a point to start remembering everything, and the result were social networks, reality TV shows, video blogging, or anything that enables them to remember life while it's happening.  If you think about it, almost all technology that comes out nowadays (phones, internet, television) are devices that supposedly enable you to "be" and "know" at the same time, which, as you know, is totally impossible.

It's also interesting that when we get old, we start losing our memory. We try to remember, try to blow the embers of a life that is slipping away and whispering "set me free, set me free".  Perhaps God is doing us a little favor when He takes away our memory, preparing us for the day we become truly alive. For those who do not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.

20 November 2014

The Observer Effect

In a post back in September I talked about how emotions hate being explained in a sort of poetic point of view. But any truth when coming from an infinitely creative God will be echoed by a thousand other Voices, and now I'd like to look at the same truth through the voice of science--and yes, science actually has a lot to say on the matter. 

Look at it this way. You're five years old. You wake up one morning and see a blanket of snow covering your backyard. You jump out of bed, throw on your clothes, and choke down your breakfast faster than you ever did for school. Your mom bundles you up and you plunge into that white stuff like you're walking on the sky. At the end of the day, as you sip your hot chocolate and look out the window, you see that smooth blanket of snow is now trodden with footprints and green patches that you used to make snowmen and snowballs. And all the sudden, you have the oddest feeling of guilt. You can't say where it's coming from, but you have a vague feeling that  it is somehow connected to you.  Do you remember that feeling? I do. Nowadays when I see snow, I just start the day with the hot chocolate and keep it that way.  I mean, it's not as if the cold bothered me anyway, but footprints are just so...well, ugly. Like anything humans do.

It's a weird feeling. I never knew how to explain it. But later in science I learned about this thing called "The Observer Effect."  It works like this: if you stick a thermometer into a pot of steaming water, a small fraction of the heat will be transferred from the water into the thermometer. As a result, the temperature you read will be ever so slightly lower than the actual temperature. No matter how expensive your thermometer is, you're never going to know the exact temperature of the water. You change the temperature just by measuring it.

But this isn't just a science problem--it's a life problem. Don't you ever sometimes get the weird feeling that applause ruins a beautiful symphony, that some sunsets are just too perfect to be photographed--in short, that certain things best go unspoken? It permeates all of our existence, and few people have yet realized that we are all struggling with the exact same thing: the unobservable yet undeniable phenomenon that the act of observing alters the thing we observe.

Heisenberg broke the whole thing down to the subatomic level when he discovered that you can know either where an electron is currently located or predict where it is going to be located, but not both at the same time. Why? Because the electrons are so infinitesimally small that simply shining a light on it will literally blow it away.  It's called the Uncertainty Principle, and it basically means that nothing you see is exactly the way it is. You change something just by looking at it. 

Let me give you a more human example.  In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, a beautiful French girl named Cosette is adopted and raised in a convent for the first twelve years of her life. When her adopted father takes her out to live in 17th century Paris, it has a huge psychological effect on her. For her entire life she had been raised in a place where she had never looked at her reflection once, and all of the sudden she finds herself in a place where being physically attractive is the only thing that matters. One day, as Cosette was tending flowers in the garden, she overheard the neighbors talking about her. They were gossiping about what a pretty young girl she was turning out to be. Cosette dropped her watering bucket and rushed inside to look at herself, and lo and behold, she was beautiful. But in that instant, something happened.

The act of observing changes the thing being observed.

She didn't actually start looking uglier, of course--the change happened from the inside. She began wearing more flamboyant colors and expensive hats.   That flash in her eyes, the way she smiled and walked, told the world that she could see what they saw, and she knew what effect it had on them.  Her adopted father noticed it too, and he had the same feeling I felt as a five-year-old looking over all that trodden snow. It's over now. She knows. There's no going back. Cosette had discovered Pride and Self-Consciousness, and it was all because of one look in the mirror.

I swear I didn't mean this to be a really philosophical OneDirection shout-out, but hey, maybe they were on to something when they say that not knowing you are beautiful is what makes you beautiful. At any rate, it's pretty hard luck on whatever girl they're singing about, because now she knows that her smile at the ground gets you overwhelmed and will probably start using it to her advantage. And who wants to date a girl like that?

The hard fact of life is, if you're pretty or clever or funny, you're going to find out eventually, and that finding out is inevitably going to make you ever so slightly less pretty, clever, or funny. You're going to run out there and mess up the snow one way or another, and if you don't, someone else will.  In the end, it all boils down to being versus knowingYou can either live life or think about life, but doing both at the same time is next to impossible. Scratch that, it is impossible. Perhaps a story would help explain this.

(Don't mind the illustrations...I wasn't on a real artistic swing that day...)

There once was a man who was so ashamed of existing that he wanted to kill himself. But he had read the Bible and knew that wouldn't do. Fortunately, he had read enough books to know exactly what the problem was. Unfortunately, the problem was that he had read too many books. He had turned himself into a brainless intellectual who understood everything and at the same time understood nothing. He had thought himself to death.

In fact, he knew everything a man needed to know to be happy: and that is that knowledge makes you unhappy.

Pretty bad fix, huh?

In order to be happy, he needed to know how to get from here:

(that's a brain, in case you couldn't tell)

Unfortunately, that was the only thing he didn't know how to do. So I guess you could say that he knew what he NEEDED to know, but didn't know what it was, nor did he know how to know. Because the whole point of it was not  knowing, but simply being.

What was the obstacle?

Usually when he wanted to learn something, he learned it by studying it.

But the moment he tried to study BEING...

It ceased to be being...

And became knowledge again.

His only tool had been taken away. Eventually he realized that it would do him no good to read about it. He simply had to experience it. 

But obviously, that was easier said than done. For experiencing is a heart activity, not a head activity. The very thing he needed to get what he needed was the very thing he needed.

(Are you beginning to see how hard this is?)

So Existential Man rationalized with himself. Thomas Edison probably could have invented the light bulb much faster if he had a light bulb to work by...

But that would quite defeat the point of him inventing it.

(I had a similar experience when I invented airplanes ten years ago).

"Sooooo..." thought the Existential Man, "if Edison didn't need a light bulb to invent the light bulb, what did he need?"

Then he had his epiphany.

Edison used something simple to make something complex. He went backwards to go forwards. Existential Man knew that he could not acquire being by learning to be. He had to unlearn things in order that he might be.  

The End.

Okay, I probably made things even more confusing with that story. But it was fun to make. And by now you're probably thinking, "wow, brilliant conclusion, Raymond. Thanks for taking away ten minutes of my life I'll never get back." But there is a moral to all this. The first moral is sometimes you just need to splash your head in some really cold water. The second moral is: the longer you live, the more you have to go backwards to remind yourself what life is really about. But you're never really going to get there, at least not in this life, because it's like a rainbow--slipping out of your hands as you arrive. To put it the words of Thornton Wilder's beautiful play: "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."

Thanks for reading, and now I think I will go splash my head.
-The Minstrel Boy

19 November 2014

Felt like posting something

The scene is in heaven in the clouds. Gabriel is hammering a broken point back onto a star. The angel Joseph enters carrying a wrench.

Joseph: Gabriel?
Gabriel: Yes, Joseph?
Joseph: The clocks are stuck.
Gabriel: Again? What happened?
Joseph: Something’s got jammed in them.
Gabriel (sighs): It’s him again, isn’t it?
Joseph: Probably. What happened to Polaris?
Gabriel: What do you think?
Joseph: When is that boy going to grow up?
Gabriel casts him a significant look.
Joseph: Oh, right.
Gabriel (calling): Margaret!
A girl angel enters.
Gabriel: Send for Peter Pan, will you please?
Margaret: Yes sir. (exits)
Joseph: Oh, give it up, he’s probably with the mermaids again, imitating us and making them giggle...
Gabriel: No, he’s here, I just walked in while he was trying to stick this back on...
Peter Pan pokes out from behind the star, startling them both.
Peter: You sent for me?
Gabriel: For heavens’ sake, stop popping in like that!
Peter: Sorry Gab...
Gabriel: And don’t call me Gabe!
Peter: ...riel, as I was saying. Is something wrong?
Joseph: Don’t play innocent with us, Pan!  We know what you did!
Peter: Oh, you mean the star? That was an accident, I crashed into it.
Gabriel: Peter, stop trying to avoid the point...
Peter (deeply offended): Oh, so you wanted me to crash into it. I thought as much. You two never liked me anyway...
Gabriel: No, that’s not what I meant...
Peter: Well this sure explains everything! (imitating Gabriel) “Stop playing around and get the point, Peter! Oh, Peter, how do you always miss the point?” Well I didn’t miss I this time, and I’ve got a bruise on my head to prove it! Does that make you happy?
Gabriel: No, no, that’s not the...the...
Peter: What, do you want me to hit it again? Suit yourself. (he turns to knock his head against the star, but Gabriel grabs his collar)
Gabriel: No, stop! That’s not what we’re here to talk to you about.
Peter looks suddenly very shifty
Peter: Oh, well, be quick about it. I’ve somewhere to be.
Joseph: Don’t be ridiculous Pan, you’ll have nowhere to be until we get the clocks unstuck.
Peter: What? What do the clocks have to do with it?
Joseph: Are you stupid, boy? You know what happens when you jam the clocks!
Peter: What happens?
Peter (calmly): I forgot.
Joseph: You liar!
Gabriel (in a low, serious voice): No Joseph, he has.
Joseph: How could he...
Gabriel: Tell him.
Joseph draws a deep breath of frustration and speaks slowly and deliberately.
Joseph: The clocks are running the universe, Pan. When the gears stop, history stops. All of time comes to a screeching halt. And they’ve stopped moving. Do you know what that means?
He pauses to let it sink in. A look of dawning comprehension grows on Peter’s face
Peter: Oh no.
Joseph (muttering to Gabriel): Finally he gets it.
Peter: This is awful!
Joseph:  Yes it is.
Peter: Someone ought to do something!
Joseph: Yes they should. At this exact moment...
Peter: Four billion children just went to the dentist.
Joseph: NO!!!
Peter: I hate dentists.
Gabriel: Just drop it, Joseph.
Joseph: No, he needs to understand this. The last time he jammed the clocks it started the American Revolution.  Who knows what could be happening down there right now...
Peter (jaw clenched in anger): Yeah. Somebody’s getting their teeth drilled.
Gabriel: Oh, Peter, how you always miss the point. Don’t you realize that you caused this?
Peter: How?
Joseph: Why, you dweeb! You threw a button into the gears of the universe.
Peter: No I didn’t.
Both angels groan in frustration.
Gabriel: Peter...
Joseph: Pan...
Peter: I swear!
Joseph: It’s a miracle the good Lord hasn’t smitten him centuries ago.
Gabriel: Peter, enough with the games.
Peter: I didn’t throw a button in there!
Joseph: Peter—
Peter: It was a penny!
Gabriel: So...you did put something in the gears.
Peter: No. Yes. I found it in a fountain. There’s loads of ‘um in there, I didn’t think people would notice if I just took one.
Joseph: Why’d you throw it in the clock gears?
Peter: Because. I didn’t like his face.
Joseph: Who’s face?
Peter: You know, the guy.
Gabriel: Abraham Lincoln.
Peter: Yeah, him.
Joseph: Let me get this straight. You stopped the movement of all of time and space just so you could have the satisfaction of smashing Abraham Lincoln’s face?
Gabriel: It was his bad side...
Joseph: Gabriel! You’re not helping! (to Peter) Why did you do it? (silence) Why?
Peter says nothing.
Gabriel (with a sense of weariness): Peter, why don’t you go play with the fairies again?
Peter: Really?
Joseph: You’re not letting him GO!?
Gabriel: What can he do? I’ll fix it myself.
Peter Pan leaps up and skitters off
Peter: Aw, thanks a million, Gabe, you’re a star...
Gabriel: Don’t call me Gabe!
Peter: Gabriel! I said Gabriel!
Peter exits.
Joseph: Why did he do it? Did he get in a row with Lincoln? Wouldn’t be surprised.
Gabriel: No. You know how he feels about grownups.
Joseph: You’re way too easy on him.
Gabriel shrugs and continues to work on his star
Gabriel: He’s not my responsibility. He’s not anyone’s responsibility.
Joseph: That’s his problem.
Margaret enters, panting
Margaret: I couldn’t find him anywhere. But you better send someone to the gates, because St. Peter’s keys are missing again…
Joseph: You see? That’s what happens when you let him get away, the ungrateful little snitch.
Gabriel: How do you know it was him?
Joseph: Who else could it be?
Margaret: Oh dear. What shall we do with Peter Pan?
Gabriel: (sighs to himself) The good Lord knows it’s not punishment he needs.
Joseph: What does he need?
Gabriel: A mother.
End scene