Listening to the Universe

The world demands a conversation. Enjoying life, even (maybe particularly) as a philosopher, requires give and take, a yielding of some control, an ability to let go and follow instead of lead.

World_of_ideasAs a philosopher, I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life trying to master the intricacies of logic and apply what I’ve learned to life. While logic has and continues to serve my life in positive ways that I could not have imagined when I began studying it, I’ve had to undergo some correction in the extent to which I’ve attempted to apply logic and reason to “being in the world.” When we encounter something positive and powerful, I think we have a tendency to want to maximize its effectiveness. When the cook in your home finds a dish everyone likes, the dish tends to appear so frequently that everyone begins to hate it. I grew up in the age when hacky sack was popular. Many hacky sacks were filled with little plastic beads and new buyers were instructed that boiling the new "footbag" for 3 minutes would loosen up the bag "priming" it for use. A friend of mine thought that if 3 minutes were good, 6 would be better. He melted the beads so that they formed a large solid ball ruining the equipment.

If a little is good, a lot must be better.

That axiom is easy to apply to logic. Logic is so powerful and so effective that it’s tempting to want to filter everything through a logical framework. But as most learn by experience, the world doesn’t always cooperate. It’s not that logic doesn’t represent the way the world works—I think it does. The problem is with us. In a great many situations, we aren’t able to see all the variables and conditions that affect the outcomes of the situations we’re in. We’re also limited in what we can bring about many times. While logic may demand a certain course of action, we are, more often than not, hampered by factors out of our control—other people (with wills of their own), unseen variables, powerful laws of nature, uncooperative weather, the needs of the kids, morally ambiguous situations—all these and many other make the “logical course of action” difficult if not impossible to determine at times.

An obvious truth, right? It is. But acknowledging this truth and finding a way to live with it—particularly if you’ve spent your life training your mind to be more logical—can be difficult along an order of magnitude that would make Sisyphus tear up with joy. But life, if it is anything, is multi-faceted requiring a conversation rather than a lecture. Many times, hopefully more often than not, we do the talking. But a great many other times, we have to listen and go along for the ride. Ignoring what the we’re being told can drive one mad.

In fact G.K. Chesterton, one of the more diverse (and frankly enjoyable) English writers of the last centuries saw the problem with his typical acuteness. In one of his more famous works, Orthodoxy (a fine book worth reading even if you don’t agree with his apologetic goals), Chesterton contrasts the healthy man with the insane one. He writes,

“The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one.”

He closes the passage with an aphorism I’ve quoted often on this blog because of its poignancy:

“The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

The brilliance of the observation is that the world demands a conversation. Enjoying life, even (maybe particularly) as a philosopher, requires give and take, a yielding of some control, an ability to let go and follow instead of lead. This has been and is a hard lesson for me and one I have yet to fully understand. Thankfully, my wife and two friends have helped me find some balance. One friend introduced me to existentialism. While I have to reject a lot of how existentialist thought is applied, there are significant truths in the philosophy, if it could be called that, which provide a balance to hard-core rationalist thought. Existentialism breaks down at significant points and when it falls over it falls hard. But I’ve found it’s a mistake to reject everything simply because it can’t be applied to everything.

Another friend, extremely talented photographer Pete Harris who has taken photos for this website has been teaching me a lot about listening. Pete also is a musician and so is much more artistically minded than I am. This is not to say Pete is not logical or does not live an ordered life. In many ways, he’s more focused than I am about a great many things. But he also has come to understand the points I made above—that there is much to be heard when you listen to what’s going on around you. “Listen to the universe.” he’s fond of saying.

I’ll close with two anecdotes that I think make the points I want to make. Pete and I went down to Las Vegas for a few days recently to unwind and attend a trade show. I had never been to Vegas before and Pete wanted my first experience to be a good one. As I typically do, I wanted to know the agenda; what we were doing each day, when we were doing it, how much it was going to cost, and the like. I was quite unnerved when I found out Pete had only planned a few activities through the second night. “What about the rest of the week?” I asked, “We’re going to let Vegas speak to us.” he said with a wry smile. I actually became physically ill from the thought. But I finally was able to let go and “wandered” with Pete around Vegas. We bounced from place to place building the narrative of our holiday moment by moment. And Vegas did speak to us and I had one of the most enjoyable and relaxing times of my adult life. My physical state was so altered by the experience that my kids noticed “how relaxed and calm” I looked upon my return home.

I had a brief bout with sanity.

The second story is about my turn to practice without Pete around to help. A few days ago, our washing machine finally gave up the ghost after 13 years of faithful service. I did my due diligence and found the replacement machine I wanted at the right price. I went to the store to purchase the replacement and was told that the unit would be more than I expected and that I wouldn’t be able to take it home. I had to pick it up at another location 20 miles away,  2 or 3 days later.  I began to look for another machine gearing up to spend more money and not get the machine I wanted. But decided to listen rather than lead. I left empty handed.

When I got home, I browsed the website of the store I just left to check some facts and found that the machine I wanted was available for purchase on the website for $75 less than the in-store price and that it was available for immediate pickup from the store I just left! I purchased the unit online, printed the merchandise pickup order and had it installed in our laundry room within the hour. If I had listened to the salesperson and gone with a product I didn’t want at a price I didn’t want just so I wouldn’t be defeated by what I encountered at the store, I would have missed out.

If you’re like I am, these stories may strike you as silly, mystical nonsense at best and irrational at worst. Certainly the universe doesn’t talk back and those who stand around listening for voices in the wind have been the cause of much that is wrong with society. Of course, “listening to the universe” is a metaphor and I’m not suggesting that the world is somehow aware and has a will of it’s own. But I am suggesting that the metaphor unearths some important truths about epistemology. Namely, that our epistemic access to all the facts relevant for completely logical decision making and our power to completely control the world around us both are limited. There is an important philosophical truth here I think and one that has been made many, many times: truth and knowledge are distinct things. While we seek truth, we have to be cognizant of the fact that we’re not always able to reach it and that “being logical” is not in conflict with having a healthy acknowledgement that we sometimes have to let go and try to enjoy where life takes us.

Logic is one of the greatest gifts we’ve been given. But its not the only present under the tree.

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