Sunday, 25 November 2007

The Life of the Mind

Q. What's life for?
A. The only meaningful answer is one you find yourself.

That's an annoying answer, because it's not really the sort of answer I expected; it doesn't bring the wondering I have to an end. It's like a Zen expression, a 'koan'. What is the sound of one hand clapping? What was your face like before your parents were born? Statements designed to bring a quiet to the mind, to shut out the hubbub, the unbroken distracting chatter. HEY. JUST GIMME THE DAMN ANSWER.

"To predict the behavior of ordinary people in advance, you only have to assume that they will always try to escape a disagreeable situation with the smallest possible expenditure of intelligence."
-- Nietzsche

Thinking is hard. Change is hard. Questioning habits is hard. Trying to figure out what life is for is a philosophical pursuit, and philosophy is slippery because it is composed of what remains even after all the facts are in. It feels like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Even the most basic, concrete tenet of philosophy, "I think, therefore I am," can be wrong: even if the only thing that's real is my mind and you guys are all just figments of my imagination, I still can't stop you from punching me or have
any power to stop it from hurting. Philosophy takes a long time to be finally useful.

"Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!"

Thoreau was a wealthy, slightly weird guy who went and built a house in the woods after his wife died. For about a year he was almost completely alone, listening to birds and chipmunks and growing wheat. He wrote a book about it called 'Walden,' the place near Boston where he lived. Of course, he never got sick, or too lonely, or made his own tools, or had a harsh winter - all things you need community to survive - but he was able to shut out the noise of society and focus.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

I feel a little like Thoreau lately... not so much that I swim in Walden Pond (I'm more about surfing the net) but that my signal-to-noise ratio is very high. I can now, even more than ever, watch the films I like, read all over the Dewey Decimal System, and peruse the Web with the preternatural calm of a Hindu cow. The significant questions I have - the Big Rocks - are being answered. They're not quick and easy answers, because they're not well-defined questions. They add to my map of the known world. Like this 16th-century map of Australia below, it's not very complete. Is there part of New Zealand in there?
If only they had spent more time. Then they would understand properly.

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