That Spot (the one between necessity and free will)

I’ve been suffering a recent issue with an itchy spot on my back. Right where I can’t get at it. Since no one including me seems to have a proper back scratcher anymore (did somebody confiscate all of those?) I’ve had to improvise with one of those triangular rulers that became popular at the time of America’s refusal to go metric. It works really well as a back scratcher by the way. And probably easier to find than an actual back scratcher in case you need to know.

That spot, which goes off daily like clockwork, is currently my morning companion of irritation. Kind of like an annoying relative who overstays a visit. And now it has come to also represent another resilient pest: my need to tell you what I’m thinking. Neither seems to want to just go away so here we are then.

“It doesn’t work in theory, only in practice…”. I love that phrase. Switches up the familiar order. I came across it in a description of the Church of England’s struggle with outmoded traditions and doctrines. It’s flips around the old cliche and becomes descriptively potent across a whole spectrum of habitual behavior. Like the high school prom for instance. We still return to this hidebound ritual even though its function as cotillion and precursor to marriage has long since faded. We do it even if we don’t know why.

A friend wrote a thoughtful post where he asked questions about the origins of his ethical sense since he wasn’t raised in a particularly religious household. He wondered; “Are people good because they are Christian or do they become Christian because they are good?” Great question. I tried my best to answer and promptly wandered into the nether land of the good vs evil puzzle.

But another one of his questions scratches today’s itch even better: “How much conscious choice do we have in becoming who we are?” This speaks to the question of free will. Now we’re talking about a much easier subject right? Good thing I love this stuff and have lots of time between breakfast and lunch.

We sense free will. We operate as if we have it. Then we learn that this might not be true by instruction and analysis. The science of cause and effect says “Nope”. Evolutionary psychology says “Sorry, only passing on the genes matters!”. Chemistry is action/reaction. Physics offers a small out with indeterminacy but even that is only a way to draw a line from A to B.

Another leg under free will that gets blasted away (free will is the Many Legged Beast after all) comes from the spiritual teaching of the need to release the ego. If, as the sages tell us, ego is an illusion created by the “I” that doesn’t exist, then free will is just so much salt spray on the wave of existence. Or something like that.

So am I free? Not if I have to scratch that damn itch.

And not if I have to clean the house today. But if I don’t and instead go into my studio and make something out of stuff that has no reason to exist other than I willed it to be, what is that? Tell me that I am doing it to gain attention from the opposite sex in order to propagate my genes and I’ll tell you that boat has probably sailed. Say that I am still only making art because I’m operating on a remnant of that dynamic and I’ll tell you quite plainly that while that explanation might have descriptive value it has nothing whatsoever to do with the internal dance of consciousness that is the creative process.

Maybe this is all just mental yoga. All I know is that the experience of free will is real and performs psychic and physical transformation in me. The “fact” (if you will) of determinism is descriptive and has great explanatory powers. But it is true only if it is generative and speaks to richer complexities, and not just dismissive of the valid and fully operative processes of consciousness.

Now I’m going to go lick a begonia.

Really? I was just so sound asleep.

Mark Noble as Ötzi from the BBC’s “The Iceman Murder” (2005)
 
I used to do this weird thing as a kid. I would pretend to be asleep. My whole family would be up and about on a Saturday morning and I would just lay there in bed with my eyes closed trying to convince the world that I was still sleeping. I was awake and tracking the noises around me. I was also determined not to let anything perturb me or my self-imposed catatonia. This all came back to me today in a flash of memory; my brother screaming in my ear, “Wake up Dave. Wake up!!!” And me just laying there like Otzi the frozen man.
 
And now that I am thinking about this and laughing at my stubborn resolve in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, it occurs to me that my parents didn’t get involved. Or they probably were enlisted by my frustrated siblings, stuck their head in the door and figured out the game straight away.
 
I also now think back on the perverse pleasure I got just by causing my poor brother to engage in my madness. In the tight dark world of my adolescent sleeping fantasy, I just couldn’t believe that he actually continued to try and rouse me. Once the game was on there was no backing down for me. To suddenly “wake up” would be to admit my charade. So I just lay there with my brother shaking me and screaming “Wake UP!!!” in my ear.
 
This was all seems pretty silly now. At some point after my brother would finally give up I would get out of bed and claim obliviousness to the whole incident. I would actually insist that I was just very tightly sleeping. Very, very tightly.
 
Ridiculous, right? But it was about something. Maybe it was about control. And the joy of staying purely inside myself while the world went mad trying to break in. I read this wonderful essay by Chris Higgins where he says “…we all actively shrink from the world in countless ways, to what we can use and what we can bear.”
 
When I think of it like that I recognize the powerful impulse in us to be self contained and impervious. I also recognize how this comfort zone limits my ability to sense the world, to learn from it. The philosophical stance, the awareness of our ignorance as the beginning of knowledge, can only be seen as essential to break out of this limitation. It’s about fighting like the dickens to maintain an openness, especially towards well meaning individuals with whom we disagree. Believing what we believe is not the issue. We all need to do that. We must also remain open.
 
As Higgins says:
“Open-mindedness in turn appears first as a sort of aesthetic sensitivity, a capacity to perceive the uniqueness of a complex, irreducible situation. Then it takes the more familiar forms of humility and impartiality. Finally, it seems to represent a type of integrity, a capacity to avow the stranger within and reintegrate the self.”
(from his essay “Openesss in Three Dimensions)
 

Getting to Eukaryota

Micro-eukaryota
 
It’s strange how one thing can lead to another. Sometimes the result is hodgepodge, sometimes pattern. Today it was intricate, well ordered, lustrous pattern.
 
I began this morning by picking up where I left off last night with my “drifting off” thoughts in bed. Ironically for someone who, like many others, has preparation for sleep in mind when he reads in bed the subject of my evening’s read was mental restlessness. I’m reading “Open Minded” by Jonathan Lear and he puts the idea of restlessness out there as a basic feature of the human psyche. OK, maybe not the best book for your bedside table at night. But I get up this morning (having successfully put aside that concept in favor of actual restfulness) thinking about the disruptive function of restlessness and how it works to break up the cozy comforts of “knowingness”.
 
My Sunday morning pledge is to not look at social media until I actually accomplish something. Sunday morning is also my “Bible study.” Well, that’s what I call it anyway and sometimes it involves studying the actual Bible. But it is always dedicated to pondering imponderables. After sitting quietly with the usual morning muddle of my own thoughts during which I drink my first cup of coffee (I told you this was a routine!), I go off in search of the term “disruption.”
 
This leads to a chain of exploration which winds up with Eukaryota, which is kind of an important word for reasons we will discover. For now let’s just leave it here on the page with its lovely pronunciation: “You-carry-oh-tah.”
 
I’m glad I woke up today. I say it out loud: “You-carry-oh-tah.” (just so beautiful.)
 
Let me recount the descent of thought I followed from just typing “disruption” into the search field. If you prefer “ascent” that’s fine. Just beware that you are now identified as hopelessly cheery.
 
Up pops “The Disruption of 1843.” Sounds curious. Many years are full of disruption. Why does 1843 rise above the others to earn distinction on the disruptiveness scale? It turns out that a great schism occurred in the Scottish church that year involving dissent over who controlled the placement of clergy in local churches and who was really in charge after all. According to those rebels who decided to part ways from their established church, it was most certainly not the state! 
 
“The Disruption Assembly” by David Octavius Hill

 A side discovery to this was finding an amazing portrait of over 400 of the 1000 plus Scottish dissenters who met to begin their independence movement. A painter present for the festivities wanted to memorialize the confab and a photographer who was also present offered to take pictures of the rabble as reference material. It was a pioneering event in the history of photography and resulted in one amazing 5’ x 11’ painting. (See image here)

 
From there I picked up on “Presbyterianism” because I remembered something about it starting in Scotland as a religious movement with emphasis on local control of church teaching and organization, rather than relying on hierarchical dictates. In that Wikipedia article there was a curious editor’s warning that said emphatically; “This section possibly contains original research.” Well that certainly caught my attention since I was under the impression that Wikipedia was all about original research. Turns out to be anything but! A basic rule for them is that nothing should appear on any page without referencing established resource material. In other words, you can’t just put any old shit up there. Wait… this IS the internet isn’t it?
 
From there I went off onto a little bit of a worm-hole tangent. Just stay with me.
 
On the Wikipedia page that describes the above policy regarding “original research” there was a small flag at the bottom “Wikiversity allows original research”. Hey, thank goodness somebody does! Again, my interest in the theme of disruption was demanding some access to the open air here. And “Wikiversity” sounded interesting. I think I could afford to go there!
 
Wikiversity is part of the “Wiki” nebulae, an element of the Wikimedia Foundation, which is in turn part of the Wikimedia Movement. And that’s a lot of Wiki. Wikiversity is a free school, a collection of learning materials developed through the generosity of spirit that runs rife through this whole enterprise. After noodling around this cloud college for a while I saw a list of other projects that the Wikimedia Foundation has going. First I tried Wikinews but that was a little thin (the content seemed to be dominated by English football for some reason.)
 
The next morsel of click bait for me was Wikispecies. I have no idea why. There was also Wikivoyage which sounded too leisurely I guess. This was study time after all. On Wikispecies I looked at several pages but they all contained just taxonomy with no narrative content. I did learn that wrens and finches are related so now I’ve got that little factoid to wield on my next trip birding. (me) “Did you know wrens and finches are related?” (her, looking at a wood duck) “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?”
 
Now comes the part where those members of my audience in the “cheery” faction get their due. I found myself looking at the taxonomy structure and wondering what was towards the top. I was ascending! Way up there, above order, above class, above phylum, above kingdom even… was that word: Eukaryota. “You-carry-oh-tah.”
 
This was the big kahuna! The Domain. All organisms with a cell structure that contain a nucleus with genetic material belong to it. Its the mother ship. The uber category. The Realm of the Seven Kingdoms. The background category that every form of life belongs to.
 
Except for bacteria.
 
That will have to wait for another Sunday.
 
 

Blanket Gravity

I just had a revelation this morning! Sometimes the hour when you first wake up can provide a moment of lucidity. Like being able to remember an old childhood song you used to sing with friends that ended with “… and threw her out the window.” Or finally thinking of that clever answer to a cutting remark someone made yesterday, finding just the one you should have said. Yeah. That would’ve been good.

Well this morning in the midst of my dreamy-eyed transition to wakefulness I had a revelation. It happened as I tugged on my blankets one more time to adjust the ideal temperature zone beneath those blankets, attempting to reconstitute “comfy.” I realized in a flash the answer to something that had puzzled humanity for eons. The solution to a problem so intractable and puzzling that the centuries had until now held it in rank obscurity. These things are known to appear like a flash of light to minds that have laid the diligent groundwork, or to those who just got a good night’s sleep. I will now share with you this insight which will finally answer the riddle, wrapped in enigma, and smothered in secret sauce.

Why do blankets move during the night towards the foot of the bed?

Is it restless feet pushing them down? Or, as my wife suggests…”a group of invisible blanket gnomes situated just off the foot of the bed turning tiny transparent cranks.” Or is it “Just the way it is, eat your breakfast!” These theories are each worthy as plausible conjectures. Each one creates their own path to new hypotheses and suggest fresh methods for creating tests that will either confirm or reject those hypotheses. Well, except the ones involving the gnomes and the breakfast. But my revelation this morning might just serve to detonate those steamships of postulation into tiny bits of flotsam.

I propose: Blanket gravity.

Simply put, I propose a force that runs counter to normal gravity which creates movement at right angles to it. The mere presence of the human body between the mattress and the blankets releases this force which was previously latent. This force is local and has no bearing on objects outside the blankets. It is in effect only as long as the body remains on the mattress, under the blankets, in comfy repose. At this time, and under these specific circumstances, the blankets are compelled to move, in longitudinal fashion along the axis of the body and always from head to foot.

This force is undeniable. It is irresistible. It is universal. It is, after all, a blanket theory of gravity.

As further supporting evidence, I look to the understanding of centrifugal force, known to physicists as a “fictional” force because it does not force the object in motion directly away from the central axis, but instead acts like a series of forces that are tangential to the circle created by the spinning object.

So, if you are on that amusement park ride where you join a group of strangers inside a huge tin can while the floor drops away and you are pinned to the wall with no visible means of support (remember, you payed to do this), you imagine that centrifugal force is pushing you back. You are mistaken. And you should probably be riding the Tilt-a-Whirl.

I drew this picture to show how it works, along with my arrogant declaration about its meaning. I’m sure you will forgive my enthusiasm but the coffee was strong. The next step is peer review of course.

 

Gratitude

We’ve come back around to the season of gratitude. My favorite time of year. This year we have the option to click on a Facebook app which assembles a photo montage to pay tribute to a friend and that’s just fine I guess. But something in the “easy” is awkward. Like giving or receiving an electronic “Thank-you” card that was done with just a click or two. It works from that low level position of minimal effort because hey, don’t we all know that inarticulate and time-pressed feeling? And sometimes it’s nice to be able to send a quick feel good message because it’s one of many other things demanding our attention. But we are still capable of real attention, right?

Anyway, here’s hoping I never lose that ability altogether. And here’s the list of what I’m grateful for. I wrote it the other day. Today I wrote the second part of each one because the first part seemed way too corny.

I am grateful to be a warm blooded person on this planet. Try cold-blooded sometime. Makes you grateful real quick.

I am grateful for friends in my neighborhood who genuinely care enough to listen as I try to express what is important to me. And if you’re just pretending you’re doing it very, very well.

I am grateful that I still have an urge to find a way to give more than I have given. That’s a nice way of saying I’m a slug in this department.

I am grateful that my eyes are not dimmed by age to the point where I no longer see the intense wonder that my youth taught me. Now if my youth would just quit going on sabbatical.

I am grateful that I know one person who joins with me in a promise to stand by and elevate every moment together as a demonstration of shared love. And for not thinking this is all sentimental bullshit.

I am grateful for the wisdom of my body when it knows what is enough. Most of the time.

I am grateful for glorious, unexpected elation that comes when I stop demanding it. But I was really hoping for last Tuesday at three.

I am grateful for the ability to work on something that faith tells me is possible. And for the ability to stop working on something when it all goes to hell.

I am grateful for the quiet peace of a lazy afternoon. Because then I can just space out… I mean “be creative.”

I am grateful because being grateful builds a stronger heart. And I should quit here because I just used “grateful” twice in one sentence.