Saturday, January 21, 2017

You Don't Know Jack...

...But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

(If you're new here, this column consists of weekly letters written to my grandchildren, who exist, to haunt them after they become grups and/or I'm dead, and my great-grandchildren, who aren't here yet.)

Dear (eventual) Stickies and Great-Grandstickies,

I repeat, you don't know Jack. It's important, very important, that you know that you don't know. If you know that you don't know, you know a lot more than most people.

[Um, I'm gonna need you to explain THAT one, Poppa, says Iggy, my imaginary grandsticky. Dana, my imaginary reader, is giving me the raised eyebrows of skepticism. Marie-Louise, my muse, is grinning and scratching my back, being immortal, she already knows the truth about truth.]

Allow me to explain.

Let me begin by endorsing the wisdom inherent in the statement, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." -John Adams

That is, the facts are the facts, regardless of what we think they are or want them to be.

"All we want are the facts, ma'am," which is what Sgt. Joe Friday actually said.


The facts are indeed, the facts, and the fearless pursuit of the facts is necessary if one wishes to know the truth. But truth is, at best, provisional. Provisional: serving for the time being (Merriam-Webster).

[Dana speaks: Awesome, dude, thanks for clearing THAT up!]

"Patience is a virtue." -William Langland

"Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can, seldom found in woman, never found in man." -Sister Mary McGillicuddy

Truth, is provisional -- a working hypothesis -- subject to change if/when new facts are discovered. A new fact may be hiding in plain sight or living in a hut in Siberia.

However, that doesn't bother a true scientist and it shouldn't bother us. In fact, if we adopt the right attitude, living in a world of shades of gray is much more interesting than living in a world of black and white (which would be quite boring).

"I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong." -Richard Feynman

[Iggy: Poppa, if there's a point to all this I...]

I have two points actually. The first is that everything we think we know is provisional, that is, subject to change when we uncover new facts. That this is the nature of our reality. That while acknowledging this can make you feel a little crazy, not acknowledging this might get you killed.

My second point is that since we inhabit a provisional reality of shades of gray, that while we should never stop looking for truth, a well-lived life requires that we make provisional choices and that we need to relax and enjoy the ride

As to the practical, everyday ramifications of point one, avoid over thinking to remain sane. Relax. Be confident that in most situations you'll have a command of enough of the facts to deal adequately. The trick is to never forget that a new fact may leap out from behind a rock at any moment. Cultivate that attitude. Knowing that you may not know will make you smarter than those who are sure they do know. Zen Buddhists call this having beginner's eyes, which simply means always maintaining an open mind. Pay attention and minimize the odds of being run over by a bus.

 "Our brains are pattern-recognition machines, but not good ones. That's what gets us in trouble. We see patterns where none exist. None of us are exempt from that. But we can use our limited sense of reason to see past it." -Scott Adams

As to point two, a well-lived life of provisional choices.

Philosophically speaking, just because everything we think we know is provisional, it doesn't follow that this knowledge need reduce us to insecure neurotics fearful of believing in anything. Or, worse yet, cause us to declare that "like, everything is relative, man." The latter being the universal justification for an empty, amoral life with no path ever chosen other than the one that satisfies the appetite of the moment.

God, or evolution, or whomever/whatever, has blessed us. We're not just eaters/procreators, we're eaters/procreators who are aware we're eaters/procreators. We don't just eat, procreate, and take a nice nap. We choose to be enthusiastic carnivores or self-righteous vegans (yes, I'm biased). We choose to be libertines, virgins or something in between (no bias, whatever works). Everyone should strive to take more nice naps (bias again).

My more traditionally religious friends call this having a soul with a free will. They believe the cosmos is a structure created by an omnipotent architect who provides a set of discernable rules we're to follow. I've no problem with that as long as they show some restraint, and respect all of the other kids on the playground. I've got a big problem with that when the enslaving and decapitation begins.

Fortunately, nowadays anyway, most of these folks are perfectly nice and choose the path labeled Live and Let Live. However, the devil, as always, resides in the details.

As for the rest of us, in my semi-humble opinion, step one is acknowledging the undeniable fact that we also have to share the playground with other kids -- again, restraint, respect, live and let live. Hmmm... it would seem these groups have something in common,

Step two, use the gift, choose. Impose a frame. Adopt a working protocol. Decide on some rules. Whatever you say, goes, but only for you. What goes for everyone should be decided by you and everyone else with, wait for it -- restraint, respect, and a spirit of live and let live.

And yes, I used the word blessed a few paragraphs ago. From the book of Crank: Believest thou in a carefully crafted creation conceived and constructed by an unimaginably awesome God of pure love or a perpetually pissed off dude with a white beard (Anticlause?) and lots of strictly enforced rules and regs that vary from sect to sect, prophet to prophet, messenger to messenger (inhale here), or, a cosmos that can be summed up and defined on a bumper sticker -- Shtuff Happens -- the bottom line is the same. 


Even if you think you would prefer a black and white reality and/or you think you will, eventually, inhabit one, the Fact remains that, for now, you're in the same boat as the rest of us. What to do, what to do?

Choose a path that leads to any destination that motivates you to keep getting out of your warm, comfy bed in the morning. If you choose the wrong one or if you reach your destination, pick another one. Try not to step on other people's toes. Don't let other people step on yours.

Simple, right? Poppa loves you.

Have an OK day.