Introducing an Iterative Biography of Thought

It occurs to me that some of you may not know who I am. Reading what I write is a good a way to find out what is in my mind. However, some may not consider that satisfactory as an introduction. I doubt the Queen is introduced by reference to her musings that day. More probably she is introduced as “Her Majesty The Queen” or something similar, even though that happens to be a very silly label to apply to any person. So please let me introduce myself. My name is Eric Priezkalns and I am dying. People say my name is interesting, or at least different. It prompts a recurring conversation. The abridged version goes:

“My father was Latvian. He came to the UK after fighting Russians in World War II. He died before Latvia regained its independence, so never returned. I went there after he passed away, to trace my roots. Priezkalns means pine hill or mountain. Latvia is a flat country; they think hills and mountains are the same.”

Though repetition has made this introduction dull for me, it is worth repeating here, because it was produced through iteration. That iteration has made it very slick. It conveys pretty much all the information people want to know, including some irrelevant stuff at the end. Of course, the irrelevant stuff is not irrelevant at all, because it ensures the spiel ends up on a lighter note than it would if it ended immediately after the mention of the heaviness of WWII or my father’s death, whilst precluding people jumping to conclusions about me actually being a Latvian, which I am not. People ask about my name out of casual politeness and curiosity. To satisfy their emotional needs they need the content to finish on a light note, so I try to oblige.

For similar reasons, I would not usually mention death when introducing myself. That was added here for shock value, just to get your full attention. It is true, though hardly unusual. We are all dying. If you say you are dying, people assume it will happen soon. Whilst I might die soon, I am not expecting to. It would ruin my plans for the future. People are negative about death. It makes me positive, which is also why I mention it. It gives me a sense of urgency, to achieve things whilst alive.

Is my name, and a fortune cookie attitude to life, adequate introduction? Hardly. But there are too many people in the world to read everyone’s biography. Even in a biography there is some editing of the irrelevant events that happen to people. Biographies give a window into a human psyche, not necessarily a tour around it. The reader wants to glimpse the important parts, which begs the question of what is relevant. This is my best guess of what is important about me, which may sound very pompous. Then again, given what facts made the cut, and those that did not make the cut, then probably not.

The reason why we die is linked to the reason why we live. Our code, found in every cell, degrades over time. It mutates when copied. Without mutation, people might live forever. Mutation, though, is a good thing. Without mutation, people would never have evolved. “Natural selection” is a dreadful misnomer. Nature does not select anything; it has no purpose. Nature just rolls the dice. Sometimes mutation improves the chances of survival. Sometimes it is fatal. Mostly it is irrelevant. Rolling the dice requires iteration, not intelligence. Yet evolution created intelligence. People use their intellect to make decisions, but not always. (Cynics might say people hardly ever use their intellect to make decisions.) If every decision was purely rational, I would always be able to anticipate what information to present or manufacture about myself in order to get the respect, love, admiration or whatever it is I want to get from writing this blog. I certainly would not introduce myself like this. Luckily, as far as this blog post is concerned, all thought processes involve an emotional element too. Which is why this silly introduction will do just fine, and is really very sensible.

For good decisions, or at least rational decisions, goals should be clear. The terrible truth of my life is that it revolves around a failure. I have failed to determine the purpose of my life. That may sound comical, but I am serious. I urgently rush around to make use of my limited time, and yet have no rational basis for deciding what to do with life. This vexes me. If I knew the purpose of life, I might calculate how to fulfill it. Instead, I rely on emotional input to make decisions and treat life like a work in progress, with no clear view of its aim.

I could blame Plato for my predicament. In my mid-teens, my English teacher lent me his dialogues. He broached questions that intrigued me. I thought his approach of rational enquiry and debate might deliver answers. For Plato, “good” was the Form that made other Forms into Forms. That may have satisfied Plato, but is useless as a practical guide. I kept looking for answers. Aristotle’s insistence on the middle ground was little better. Kant’s categorical imperative is a decent rule of thumb, but what makes it imperative? It echoes Jesus, but Nietzsche made strong counter-arguments to Christian morality. Utilitarians cannot foresee the consequences of their actions. Pragmatists act first and think later. Confucius had too many rules, Lao Tzu too few explanations. By the time I graduated I agreed with Wittgenstein that most philosophy is literally nonsense. Asking the purpose of life leads to more questions, not answers. So I behaved like Wittgenstein, and gave up philosophy to do something useful, and trusted my instincts to tell me what that would be. Wittgenstein designed a house and was a schoolteacher. I used computers and became a business consultant. However, the question of purpose keeps nagging at me. The absence of purpose leaves an unbridgeable gap in rational decision-making. I have failed on two scores: I did not find a purpose to life and I cannot ignore the challenge that poses. That double failure defines me. Sometimes philosophy offers solace. Russell said that:

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”

My doubts and questions may suggest wisdom, but how can I be sure?

Perhaps the mistake was made at the beginning. Plato was sure the rational mind would find the truth, but he despised the Athenian democracy that killed Socrates, his mentor. Socrates’ love of knowledge made him enemies. Human rationality and emotion are both the product of evolution. Decisions result from their interaction, both within a person, and between people. Those decisions may reprogram the code of our lives: our physical and mental wellbeing, education and opportunities, environment, society, and soon, our genes. Our technological sophistication grows, but our decision-making prowess does not keep pace. The way we make decisions today would be familiar to the ancient Greeks. Meanwhile, our power now extends to the annihilation of the world, or the ending of poverty, depending on the decisions we make. Insisting on rational decisions is no solution, as every logical argument starts with an unproven premise, which is taken on faith. Perhaps we need technology not just to change the world, but to help us understand what we intend to achieve by changing it.

I would like to learn the purpose of existence, though I doubt I ever will. I would not expect you, dear reader, nor anyone else to furnish the answer. Feel free to drop me a line if you think you have the answer (but I reserve the right not to agree with your conclusions). One useful technique might be to learn how to use technology to inform and mediate decision making, and to use that in turn to learn of human goals, reasoning and emotions. Communications is a conduit, and I would like to tap it. Nature gets results because it is very patient. I do not have as long, so instead of performing many iterations of decision-making myself, perhaps I can speed the process by observing the decision-making processes of my fellow man. Unfortunately, blogs are one-way, and reading about other people’s thoughts is slow and sometimes misleading if they do not write honestly about their thoughts.

Economists, philosophers, psychologists and other clever people have plenty to say on how people make decisions. Unfortunately, none of them are entirely right, or they lack the data to make definitive conclusions. Nobody knows who will be the next incumbent of the White House or the last person to leave the Big Brother house. Finding ways to collect data on decisions, both rational and irrational, major and minor, might help. Most data gathering focuses on the decision itself. Knowing a decision is utterly superficial. Knowing the outcome of a vote gives no more insight than knowing somebody’s name. It is the history behind a decision that is interesting. One way to record those histories would be to utilize the ubiquity of modern communications technology, by weaving it into mechanisms for reaching and recording decisions, both by individuals and collective groups. (Do not ask for details on how someone would do this in practice – the blog is called “halfthoughts” for a reason.) That data would provide a window, or more modestly, a peephole into the human psyche. Would that be interesting and different? I think so. One problem is that there may not be a human intelligence great enough to understand the data, even when summarized. But whatever intelligence could understand the data would get one heck of an introduction: a biography of human thought, if you like…]]

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