This post is going to ramble. If you’re looking for some bit of entertainment or logical storyline, wrapping up in a nice bit of catharsis, you’ve come to the wrong place. There probably won’t even be anything funny or interesting in here. I’m pretty much just going to rant. My mind is too tired to formulate any cogency at the moment, but I have the urge to put something out into the interwebs. So if you want to waste the next 15 minutes of your life, go ahead, dive into this. It’s probably better than going back to your Facebook feed though. If you can focus on this drudgery for fifteen minutes, it’s probably excellent concentration practice. So maybe it is worth something. The point of this paragraph is that basically every one after it will be similarly disjointed. Just like the whole post.
I went to bed before 7 pm last night. I thought I would just end up waking up in the middle of the night, but I actually slept all the way through to my alarm at 5:30. That’s really only 10.5 hours, which honestly isn’t that much for being what was supposed to be my coming home from work and just crashing because I was far too exhausted to go to the gym. It was definitely justified. We had a few pretty brutal workouts Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. This morning was also killer, so I’m really glad I took the night off.
I also didn’t sleep that whole time. I spent at least a couple hours just kind of lying there, listening to music, and letting my mind wander. That’s really something we don’t do enough. How often is your mind just bored? Probably not very often. You feel that incipient boredom, and bam, you’ve got the smartphone out and scrolling through facebook or pulling up a new podcast or just listening to an old one or reading something you’ve read a million times just to save your mind from the horror of boredom.
Two weekends ago, I walked to the south end of this little island I’m on, which is called Nøtterøy (literally “nuts island”; I have no idea where it comes from). It was part of a series of training treks I’ve been doing as I prepare for a few days of trekking through the fjords of western Norway in less than a month. The walk took me about 7 hours round trip, and I carried most of the gear I expect to carry when I head to the fjords. Physically, it was tiring, but I didn’t return completely exhausted. I didn’t bring food (that was planned), and I probably didn’t drink enough water, but I was ok.
What I also didn’t bring was a pair of headphones. I had my phone, but it remained silent and on airplane mode. It served purely as a compass/map/GPS device. I now have an analog compass, so if I can get my hands on a map of Nøtterøy, I won’t even need it. But I disconnected myself on purpose. I wanted to have my mind be in an extended state of not being entertained. It can be tough, but it’s really liberating. Like the fasting, it feels good in a slightly uncomfortable but regenerative kind of way.
Tomorrow, I’ll take the last of these little training treks. I’m going to walk to the end of the world. Seriously. At the southern end of the island south of Nøtterøy is a place called Vardens Ende, literally “the world’s end”. I expect it to take about 6 hours to get there. I’ll make camp (my 1-man trekking tent just arrived).
[quick PSA: If you’ve ever thought about standing on the side of the road with a sign that says “Honk if you’re a dipshit!” or some asinine thing like that, just don’t. Because everyone in your vicinity has to listen to all the dipshits who actually honk.]
Anyway, these during the first few hours of these walks, while my mind is still active, I can mull over some difficult questions that take the kind of concentration hard to muster in the rush of a work day.
Last weekend, I mulled over this thought that I haven’t fully been able to wrap my head around but has been causing a lot of existential issues.
Last year, I spent many a morning on the city bus on its way to my favorite cafe on the other side of town. Once there, I would work on some writing and job hunting, but on the way, I did the same kind of unplugging as I do on these walks. The 30-minute bus ride was a good amount of time to work mentally on a rational personal ethic. I wanted to define a moral basis for myself, starting from first principles. In physics, we often start from first principles (such as the laws of motion or the laws of thermodynamics) and inductively reason our way to new hypotheses that form the basis of modern physics.
Why not do that with philosophy too? Well, it gets a bit trickier because we don’t really have “first principles” of philosophy. I figured that I could build a rational moral philosophy starting from one undeniable truth: I exist. As Renee Descartes so famously mused, “I think therefore I am.” From this, and making assumptions only to avoid a trivial solution (e.g. having a philosophy that can’t be followed or doesn’t actually provide any guidance), I was actually able to build a logical case for a whole series of moral foundations. These were such things as honesty, sincerity, fairness, liberty, and the prioritization of the self but not at the expense of others. It really turned into a kind of selfish morality espoused by libertarians and extolled in a very similar form by Ayn Rand Objectivists (I think they start with a good idea, but I had a few key differences).
Unfortunately, I started listening recently to a mid-twentieth century philosopher named Alan Watts. He was one of the first to popularize Eastern philosophy in the US, and he started to lead what could be called the first wave of mindfulness thought several decades before the trend making waves by going viral in peak performance circles like Silicon Valley. He introduced the idea (found often in Buddhist teaching, but also many other Eastern philosophies) of non-dualism. I had tried to read into it before, but Watts was the first one to make it even approachable to me. I’ll try to explain what I think I understand, but I’m writing this because I know I don’t fully understand. I think that the moment of complete understanding is what Buddhists call nirvana.
Basically, it undermines the one fundamental truth I thought I had pinned down: the concept of self. Watts sold this to me by highlighting the fact that so much of what we take for granted in the world is purely conventional. By that, I mean that we accept something and follow it merely because it is a useful convention. Think of units of measure. One meter could have been any length we wanted it to be, but it ended up being one completely arbitrary length that we all (except those in developing countries like the US) understand so that we can speak a common language. Language itself is another. Words are simply representations of real things, and a brief thought of the thousands of human languages (and who knows how many non-human languages) there are that represent a particular thing with myriad different sounds, scribbles, or signs shows just how arbitrary these things are. But he extends that that to conventions that are less obvious. Think of time. It’s merely just a unit of measure. Indeed, Einstein showed us that it’s not even its own thing. It’s inextricably linked to space. But the concept of space-time is also just a convention.
We can go even further. If the idea of space-time is just a convention, then any delineations we make within it are arbitrary units of measure. The choice of where one meter ends and the other begins or where one object ends and another begins is just a convention that helps our feeble human minds that have a need to categorize things. One of those objects is what I might call “me”. Where do I begin and end? In space? Does the boundary between me and the rest of the universe have any actual foundation? Where do I choose to put that boundary? At my skin? At the end of my hair? At the edge of my personal space bubble? At the end of the image I cultivate on social media? What about in time? When do I begin? At self-awareness? At birth? At consciousness? At conception? At the formation of the gametes that will eventually combine to form what eventually grows into this body? At the formation of the atoms that make up this body? And when do I end?
All of these are useful questions to answer for philosophical, legal, and social reasons, but in the end, the choice – whether arbitrary or rational – is ours. We define it. The universe doesn’t give a hoot where/when “I” begin and end.
As Watts put it, (I’m loosely quoting), you are what the universe is doing at a point you call here and now.
And that is what Buddhists mean when they say that they are “one with the universe”. They have accepted the fact that there is no actual boundary between the body and the rest of existence. Even your thoughts are nothing more than the manifestation of the universe unfolding in a certain way to form a bit of what we call consciousness. “You are the universe experiencing itself,” as Watts (possibly apocryphally) put it.
If you’ve actually gotten this far. Now is a really good time to stop reading my drivel and go chew on that for a few minutes. or days. or years.
Now you see my dilemma. “I think therefore I am” is an extremely presumptuous assertion. Just because there is thought does not mean that there is indeed a thinker. As we learn more about quantum physics, we start to understand how particles can pop in and out of existence in seemingly random patterns and in place-times that are undefinable (not just undefined, but undefinable). The universe can indeed create rather spontaneously what appears to our consciousness as a singular stream of thought. Because this thought is controlled by actions in what we call a brain, we must, therefore, be an individual with individual thoughts, right? Maybe not.
Damn. I hit a wall. This happens frequently as I mull over these issues.
But what I was chasing on that walk a couple weeks ago and continue to pursue while lying in bed last night was what it means for my personal ethic. I had a bit of an epiphany a couple weeks ago at work when I realized that if even the self is purely a contrivance, anything we decide to do with ourself is also a contrivance. Therefore, the idea of a personal moral code based on first principles is already illogical. The point of conventions is to allow society to function.
Boom. There it is.
That’s why I’m doing this.
The point of conventions is to allow society to function. An ideal personal ethic is one that best contributes to the cooperative functioning of society.
Alright, now we have a purpose.
I think that realization was really just a better way to phrase what I had already been considering, so it leads to the same place that I ended up while walking.
The foundation of society is the relationships between the members of the society. Relationships are founded on trust. Therefore, the highest ideal of my personal ethic ought to be the cultivation of the trait trustworthiness.
The highest praise a person can give me is three simple words: “I trust you.”