A long time ago I proposed “what exactly is reality?” as a question I would later answer. More recently I wrote on the same topic “I don’t know [...] I also don’t really care.” That was obviously not quite true, as here I am writing about it again. I think what was true was that I'm okay with not having a way to fully define reality. And I’m not only okay with the ambiguity of possibly being totally wrong about everything; I think it’s a good thing.

I remember reading a long time ago a quote by Einstein “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know.” and later hearing about what I think was probably the Dunning–Kruger effect, an actual cognitive confirmation of what Einstein said. Ignorance really does breed overconfidence while knowledge grows understanding of how ignorant we really are. What we value isn’t just knowing a lot in general, but specifically knowing enough to poke at the edges of what we don’t know.

There’s something uncomfortable about recognizing that the part we don’t know just seems bigger and bigger the more we learn about it. But I think the alternative, the idea that we could figure it all out and just be done learning about the universe, sounds even worse. Maybe it’s just the perspective of what I know now, but it’s hard to imagine knowing everything without everything feeling really small and boring.

Once I start from the assumption that reality is undefinable and stop struggling against that idea, reality actually gains some definition, not as a resolvable thing, but rather as the process for improving resolution. I’d been thinking about reality as a thing to see better, but reality is more like the "enhance" thing they do on TV shows, only not totally ridiculous. It’s the process of seeing better.

So taking that back to the idea that one’s ideas should be not only internally consistent, but also consistent with external reality, I think all I really mean by that is that being internally consistent can’t come at the expense of being open to new ideas. That doesn’t mean all new ideas are equal, because new ideas can be evaluated on how they open up even more new ideas. Bad ideas shut down thought. Good ideas expand it. And expanding ideas includes maintaining a good amount of existing ideas, which conveniently rejects the whole "everything we know is a dream" flavor of nihilism. That seems like a pretty good rubric for approaching ideas. I’m looking forward to applying it more specifically in future posts to see how coherent my thinking really is.

 

I think the obvious next step beyond a set of ideas being internally consistent is keeping those ideas consistent with the universe. For better or worse, the universe is our context, and it doesn’t seem to much care for debate on how it works. I may think it would be really great if I could live forever, but reality suggests I can’t, so I shouldn’t grow attached the the idea of immortality.

On the other hand, the universe is full of change, so holding ideas consistent with reality necessitates holding a lot of conditional ideas. It’s good to go outside and get some sun, until the sun becomes a cause of cancer. Being consistent with the universe doesn’t mean siding with the sun and getting cancer; it means recognizing the risk of cancer and not going in the sun so much.

Even a principle as abstract as consistency with the universe already suggests to me some immediate implications for practical decisions. Accepting consistency with the universe as a virtue means avoiding any long-term escapism, e.g. heavy drug use, immersive fiction, or - most extreme - suicide.

Escapism is certainly appealing; the universe can be harsh. For some people, I can imagine it’s so harsh that they just can’t make it work. But because it’s nowhere near that difficult for me, even in my most self-pitying moments, any escape will be temporary. And when it ends, when I go back to facing reality, the escape will prove regrettable, a missed opportunity, a procrastination.

A procrastination from what, I have no idea. I don’t know where the universe is heading, or even if it has a direction. But it’s going to take me along whether I like it or not, so I might as well appreciate the experiences, even the most difficult, as much as I can.

So to review: I’d like my ideas to not contradict each other, nor to contradict reality. I realize I’ve skipped over a big question here: what exactly is reality? I’ll have to come back to that later.

 

After seven months (feels longer) of writing nothing on typewriting.org, I should probably preface this by announcing my intention to pick up writing again. Since I last wrote here, I bought a house, got a new job, and a new (to me) car. The car didn’t change much, but the house feels like a very adult responsibility and the job feels like something I’ll do for a while. Life all seems very settled now, no longer the tumult of youth. Suddenly I’m old.

Several of my university friends were philosophy majors. I was not, and know very little about schools of thought on big issues, so I’m sure much of what I have to say has been said more precisely. But I have some ideas on life and whatnot and those that haven't changed much over the past two decades are likely to stick with me through the rest of this, so I thought I should write them down, a sort of ongoing This I Believe.

Trying to begin at what seems relatively like a beginning, my first idea, a principle to guide my other ideas, is that one’s ideas should be internally consistent. We call someone a "hypocrite" if they claim to believe something they really don’t, but I’m not sure we have a word for someone who believes two things that can not possibly both be true.

For example, some people will claim taxes are always bad while secretly valuing government programs paid for by taxes, possibly for political gain. And these people are hypocrites. But other people truly believe taxes are always bad, and truly value government programs paid for by taxes, and just don’t recognize the contradiction.

Some of them just don’t think about it enough to establish the contradiction. We might call them "lazy thinkers" or something to that effect. But what I want to focus on, as the antithesis of where I’m starting, is a whole different class of thinking that believes taxes are always bad, values government programs paid for by taxes, sees the contradiction there, but sees no problem in contradiction.

I don’t know how to engage such thought. I can’t even say inconsistency is "bad," because bad implies some sort of internally-consistent value judgment. "Confounding" is probably the best word I can come up with to describe the antithesis of how I want to approach ideas. Ideas should be consistent, not confounding.

I feel a bit like Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, when he says Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude; at least it's an ethos. The thing is, I think Nihilism is still better than confounding. Say what you like about the lack of tenets of Nihilism; at least they’re consistent.

So I’m starting with consistency as a base. I don’t really have any justification for that; I just don’t know how to think without it. If anything after seems inconsistent, I hope someone will point it out.

 

About a year after I met her, my friend Becca decided to change her name. I don’t think she ever had it legally changed or anything, but she started asking people to call her “Dora,” and we did. And suddenly she was “Dora,” and people would mention “Becca,” and I wouldn’t know who they were talking about, and then they’d say, “You know, Becca-Dora.”

I never heard an explanation of what brought about this desire to change her name. I think I asked her and she said something like “just because.” At the time, we were both studying existentialism, I as a casual student, and Becca-Dora as a philosophy major in the middle of writing a senior thesis on “Freedom and Facticity.” I couldn’t tell you what “Freedom and Facticity” means exactly, but at the time I suspected that had something to do with the name change. It seemed a sort of philosophy-in-action demonstration of how much we define our selves. If you want to be Dora, it turns out you can just start being Dora.

But at some point after we graduated, Dora decided she wanted to be Becca again, and so everyone called her Becca again. And now Dora is just a vague idea of … something. Whatever the reason was for Dora, I can only assume from the later reversal that it wasn’t a very good reason to change names.

My uncle, on the other hand, had what I think is a very good reason to change his name, but he never did. I didn’t hear this story until I was old enough to think it was odd that no one had told me earlier. But here it is: my grandparents’ first child was named “Kenneth Eugene.” This child died three days after birth. Then they had another child, and they named him … “Kenneth Eugene.” This second Kenneth Eugene is my uncle Ken.

So that’s weird, right? I’m pretty sure I would change my name if I found out I was named after my dead older brother. But I almost changed my name because it’s hard to spell, so I’m probably not the best person to judge what would be a good reason to change one’s name. Most people never change their names, but are there any social norms for those who do? I don’t see any. It’s name-changing anarchy out there. Anyone can do it, and no one does. Maybe that’s what “Freedom and Facticity” means.

 

I believe deeply that the lesson of Marie Antoinette (the lesson omitted from Marie Antoinette) is the critical one: You can indulge, and enjoy, for now, it is true; but sooner or later an angry mob will come round smashing your chandeliers and disconnecting your body at the neck.

Ezra Kilty. It’s the first noble truth: an angry mob will come round smashing your chandeliers.

 

Dave Rogers wrote:

But here's the thing, I kind of knew all this stuff before, it didn't really matter, did it? I think you could reasonably say I believed it, don't you think? I didn't disbelieve it. But it didn't matter, because even though I knew it and believed it, I still couldn't do the pose. If we say something doesn't matter, that's another way of saying it's meaningless, is it not? Look at a fixed point, focus on your center, that's just information. Believe it, disbelieve it, it's just information. It only mattered when I did it. It only mattered when I lived it.

After reading my Reminder: You Will Die post, my dad asked me something like "so if death helps you remember what's important in life, what's important in life?" I knew what I thought, but had trouble putting it into words. I think I said something like "living is important," which I think probably sounds like a hand-wavy zen statement after talking about the importance of death. I like how Dave phrases it, but even his "bring meaning to life" seems a bit vague.

And maybe a little wrong, too. I think life already has meaning — we just have to recognize it. It's like the difference between hearing to a song, and listening to a song. Anyone can hear whether life has a pleasant melody and go humming along to "You are My Sunshine," but you have to listen to catch the meaning. I'm sure "we have to listen for the meaning of life" sounds really trite, but I think that's because listening sounds so much easier than it is. I'd explain how to listen, but I'm not very good at it myself.

I think listening for meaning is what people are generally doing when they pray or meditate, but I'm hesitant to suggest anyone do those things. I've had too many people ask me if I pray when it's obvious they don't. They're asking if I sit with my hands folded and recite the same meaningless words they do. In that sense, I quit praying several years ago. And I've had the same experience with meditation. Though it does seem to be more difficult, I've encountered enough meditation evangelists — certain that if I only go to their meditation class with them, all my problems will be solved — to believe it's possible to meditate without listening.

And then I've met people who neither pray nor meditate, but are clearly practiced in listening for meaning in life. Some find it in music, some in words, some in photos, some in other people, some in themselves. We're not at all short on places to find meaning in life. We just need to listen for it.