Blue moon

December 30, 2009

If one looks to framing events rather than the calendar, the decade that ends tomorrow began with 9/11 and concluded with the financial crisis.  Not the best of times – probably competitive with the Seventies as the worst of times.  I suppose we shouldn’t have expected much from an era defined by two zeros.

Since everybody is beating up on the double-0’s, though, I’ll pass on the chance to pile on – they were what they were.  As my middle son the contrarian says:  “Up and down.”

The last night of the old decade will be lit by a blue moon, a rare event for New Year’s Eve.  I’m not much on signs and portents, even less on calendar-driven transitions – but I find the idea of the blue moon strangely soothing.  It’s a saying, and a song.  Now it will be the closing act of a hard 10 years.

It’s the future that matters:  and the future is no respecter of calendars, but comes at us, ready or not, a moment at a time, impregnated with all the familiar troubles of the present and the past.  Still, tomorrow remains a mystery.  The future can become, in our minds, a kind of funhouse mirror reflection of the past, in which we look stronger and better.

So people make resolutions, imagining a toggle from fat to thin, drunk to dry, flabby to muscular.  I could tell them the struggle for good character lasts a lifetime – but why be a stick in the mud?  Besides, anything is possible, in the undiscovered future.

Americans love the future, and with good reason.  We get bored easily.  We’re the ADD nation.  And we know that the one infallible prediction about the future is that it will surprise us.  Tomorrow will look like yesterday, until it doesn’t.  N. N. Taleb called this a black swan event, but I prefer to look to the night sky and call it a blue moon:  something random and rare will happen in the next decade – maybe in the next week – to upset our plans, and shake us out of our complacency.

And we’ll be perversely happy, because we hate the daily drudge, and we love the new.

What I know

December 30, 2009

Another decade is about to begin, and I’m more than a little surprised by how the decades of my life keep accumulating.  The effect has not been what I expected.  Wisdom never arrived.  Most people I know, as the decades pass, grow increasingly confident about those things they believe are true.  The opposite seems to have happened to me.  Many things I once thought true beyond the shadow of a doubt now appear uncertain.

This blog, for me, has been a blind man’s cane to help guide me toward understanding, however tentative.  Allow me to use it in that manner here.  I want to account for what I know, and why I think I know it.  The good news is, this won’t take long.  I’m afraid that’s the bad news too.

I’m not a skeptic.  I don’t believe reality is problematic or socially constructed.  The difficulty is one of perspective:  we each grapple with truth from a single point of view.  New York City from the top of the Empire State Building is a different experience than New York City from the grimy sidewalk.  Both experiences are valid.  Both are true.  How should we account for each, when we speak of “New York City”?

The answer, I believe, is that we tell a story.  That’s how people learn – about New York City, about the universe, about God and country, about morality and politics.  Despite the great faith we place in evidence and objectivity, we can never grasp plain facts.  We require an explanatory context, into which information can – must – fit.  The story is the context.  The story can be shared, so it transcends a single point of view.

That, in any case, is my understanding of what human knowledge is:  a shared story, constantly evolving to make sense of changes in the environment.  Or rather, a set of nested stories, which explain everything from how to knot a necktie to the behavior of photons in a gravitational field.

Science has been said to work this way:  by telling stories then testing them, or – in Karl Popper’s terms – by “conjectures and refutations.”  In my lifetime, scientific stories have proliferated to make sense of new observations, but they aren’t all nested, and they don’t all hang together.  About nature and the material world, therefore, I know little beyond what my senses tell me – and much of what they perceive is nonconscious, and much of what is conscious is quickly forgotten.  (I have a wretched memory.)

The stories science tells about the universe may lack harmony because of insufficient data, or because the universe is inharmonious.  Readers of this blog know that I incline toward the latter possibility:  I have a powerful intuition that the universe is, from a human perspective, irrational.  But of course I don’t know this – I’m not sure such a thing is knowable.  All that can be said is that nothing in our present state of knowledge contradicts this proposition.

About history, I know two big things.  The first is that it shows human beings aren’t termites.  Go back 100,000 years – termites, you will find, behaved exactly like they do today, while people who were biologically identical to us lived very different lives from ours.  History proves human nature to be an open system.  The possibility of freedom exists.

The second big thing is that human genius is mysteriously related to human freedom.  There’s a reason why science, geometry, and history itself arose in Greece rather than Persia, why the industrial revolution happened in Britain rather than Russia, why modern science developed in Western Europe and not in imperial China.  Freedom appears in history for haphazard reasons – but once it appears, it greatly accelerates invention and change.

About morality, I know that there’s no such thing – “morality” is an abstraction.  There are specific traditions of right behavior which we inherit, ours being what is loosely called the American way of life.  I know right behavior is felt rather than reasoned:  there’s no logic to sacrificing for one’s children or risking one’s life to save a stranger’s.

I know merit is won face to face, not telescopically:  the good person treats those around him, high and low, with uniform kindness, and doesn’t necessarily write the biggest checks to charity.

I’m with William James (but against Jefferson) in holding right behavior to be a tragic condition, a kind of self-mutilation.  Being good often collides with feeling good.  To get to the former, we must amputate powerful desires and yield strongly-felt claims on the world.  All of us, I know, fail at some time.  Still, the best set the example, while the rest of us inch toward perfection.

About my country, I have posted recently, and won’t elaborate on that.  But I know I’m happy to be here.

I know the story of my community pretty well.  It’s about family and work responsibilities, an obsession with competitive sports at leisure time, and taking care of one’s neighbors when one can.  Suburban Northern Virginia isn’t Periclean Athens, but none of us pretend to be Platos, either:  so it’s okay.

I know my wife and kids best of all.  They are the fixed center of certainty within the buzz and confusion of my life.  Their story is my story – it transcends my skin and my limitations – sometimes I think I see the world with their eyes, hear with their ears, and feel with their hearts.

In the matter of knowledge, moral and material, I stand on the (slippery) shoulders of giants, but I’m also borne forward by this small group of people with whom, by dumb good luck, I now belong.  They are the reason the stakes are high when it comes to knowing and understanding.  (They are also the reason, however indirectly, that I blog and bloviate:  at best, a mixed blessing for all concerned.)

Nothing lasts forever.  Looking ahead to a new decade, I reflect that my wife and I have spent the last 20 years driving around, fretting about, and fighting with the young ones.  Strange to say, we enjoyed most of it immensely.  That was our time.

The coming decade will be theirs.  Of this I’m pretty certain.