Thursday, December 1, 2011

Infinite Wrong

- I'm no good at math.
- You weren't taught the right way. I teach math, and always explain to my students that all that is necessary is a certain minimum level that almost anyone meets, and after that is only looking at the problems in the right way, as something to play with. I can see that I am not as intelligent as you, but that doesn't stop us from talking.
- We're talking about things I've thought a lot about. It's my subject. But general intelligence: I can see, right now at least, you are more intelligent than me. Your mind's working better than mine.
- Why do you say that?
- I'm worried all the time, my thoughts are interrupted by worries.
- The girl I live with says the same thing. I don't understand it.
- The problem is not feeling at home in the world. The sense of home is fundamental. Not the only, but the first thing we need. It's where we begin from. As our bodies work to keep their shape, we in our lives as a whole make the immediate world around as us into an extension of our bodies, and try to keep it in shape. Something about us makes this work in an all or nothing way, home or not home. Obviously the world never enters into a completely fixed relation to us, we're not important enough for that, we take up only a small corner of the world no matter how influential we would like to think we are. Something about us allows us to decide this relation to people and place is good enough, it is sufficient, it does the job. Exactly like the way the different parts of our bodies might have been formed better, the body nevertheless does the job and let's us live. Follow?
- Yes. I think so.
- Ok. So we have a sense of home, a place we don't have to think about, that isn't dangerous, we don't worry about being here. When you worry, it's because you don't have this relation. It's a matter of that ability we have to make the decision, home or not home.
- You don't mean consciously?
- No. It's a matter of habit, ability to usually do what you want to do in safety. It isn't a matter of only how you think of it: if the world changes, your sense of home can be lost. The sense of home is a prediction, a permission you give yourself not to concentrate on defending yourself.
- You really are like my friend. She says the same. She doesn't feel safe. She says things happen without a reason, you can't see them coming. It makes her too attached to her boyfriend. It's not good to love with attachment. Love should be wishing for the happiness of the person you love. Not demanding anything.
- And attachment makes you demand that they do something they don't want to.
- Yes.
- People are attached to their homes. People makes homes for each other, and their attachment to each other is being at home with each other. This is one kind of love, there are others. If it is true that the sense of home is fundamental, it would be right to demand that doing what you ask is what the person you love should do, for the sake of both of you, protecting the home. What you do outside the home is what the other kind of loves are made of, the various romantic loves: imagining a life together, then going out in the world outside the home and bringing back the story of what happened, living life outside home as a story to be told when you get home.
- I never thought of it that way.
- You can never love too much or be too attached. The only mistake you can make here is to make the return home in the wrong way.
- What is the wrong way?
- When you see the world away from home romantically, as a story to be told when you get home, you are not taking that world seriously. You don't want to remake the world in any permanent way. You want to get back home, to see what happens, to be able to make a series of statements that add up to a story. Each one of these statements is a kind of abstraction from the big thing, the world outside our home. We are not interested in what that big thing is, and not interested in getting it into any permanent shape. We are not trying to make it into our home. We make a mistake when we try to do that. And like we have a mysterious ability to feel at home with people who help us live, to make a yes and no decision a matter of intuition, we also have a way to do this deliberately, to self consciously construct a home with each other, setting rules of cooperation and then following them in each others company. This is called practicing ritual. People only do this when they can't get back to their real homes.
- Why?
- Because love is real and love is personal. You love the person, real separate person, who helps you live. The world outside is unreal, is the place where the abstractions "this happened", then "this happened", are all you take back home. There is no good way to stay out there in the world with them and construct a home out of these abstractions.
- I don't understand.
- We'll come back to it then. You were listening, right, when I was talking to the other student sitting with us, the blond girl, before she left for class?
- Yes.
- Are you friends?
- No.
- I brought up the Occupy movement, and from there we went on to the Ukrainian Free State. I asked if she, as an Ukrainian, knew anything.
- I didn't hear that part.
- Between 1918 and 1921 in the Russian revolutionary war, under the protection of a peasant army the principles of direct, leaderless democracy were put into practice. Some of those associated with the Occupy movement talk of trying this again. Are you familiar with the movement?
- Yes, but I'm not clear what it's about.
- Let's say it's about "The Wrong Rule". The Mayors of New York , of Los Angeles claim that the protesters are threatening public health and safety. The protesters say they are exercizing the rights of free assembly, free speech. There will always be more than one rule you can apply to any single situation. We decide which rule to apply by asking which one will make life better. In both cities tens of thousands of people sleep outside because they have no place inside to sleep, who could be said to be a threat to public health and safety in exactly the way a group of mostly well educated, organized, self aware mostly young protesters are. When the Mayor chooses to arrest the protesters and enforce that rule, and not the rules written in the country's Constitution allowing free speech, free assembly, it is the wrong rule: that choice makes life worse. The choice is made for a reason though.
- What?
- The Mayor finds his home out in the world. That home has been made out of certain rules, following which life works, runs safely. Politicians discover with experience what to do, what to say, develop a knack of knowing what gets them ahead in their profession. They feel at home following the rules. But that is only half the story.
- What is the other half?
- Violence. You can't have ritual without violence, without destruction of the feeling of individual home, the real home. People make a home out in the world only when they have lost their real homes.
- Why?
- The answer is almost too simple. Because in the real home, with family, with friends, you actually are doing something good: you are living well. No matter if it is only sleeping well, eating well, joking, all that is real and good. But the home life with the people out in the world is not good: it is good only in providing home in the abstract, in re-establishing safety. What is actually done in a ritual is irrelevant, absolutely arbitrary. The only requirement is that the sense of loss be reenacted. By reenactment I mean, the loss put into the story that is told in justification of the rule, the wrong rule, because all rules arising out of ritual are wrong rules.
- Why?
- We "must", the Mayor of New York said, the Mayor of Los Angeles said, the Chancellor of the University of California at Davis said, "protect public health and safety". The "must" expresses the feeling that if the rules are not followed home is lost and gone forever. For the Mayors and Chancellor it is the literal truth: their home, made out of their political careers will be destroyed if they fail to hold to the choice of rule application those careers depend on.
- So you are saying we can't blame them?
- We can't. I was telling the Ukrainian girl about a photograph taken at Occupy Los Angeles. A uniformed policeman gripping his attack stick tightly with both hands is lined up with other policemen equally terrified facing a line of a young people standing a few feet away. Opposite the policeman in the foreground is a pretty girl dressed in pink, bowing her head and lowering her eyes. You'd think that no one who looked at that picture could fail to understand which, the police or protesters, were a threat to public health and safety. On one side ugliness, instruments of violence, terror, on the other beauty, quiet, unselfishness. But we can be sure that this is not what the Mayors, the Chancellor, or the policemen see. They feel a threat to their home, and their attention fixed on the rule to be followed to get back home and safe.
- So what do we do about it?
- You're a mathematician. You know Zeno's Paradox?
- I've heard of it.
- When we leave home, the real home, of friends and family, not the home made out of rituals performed with strangers out in the world, when we leave home we're in a world not quite real. What I mean is that we're not interested really in the world as it is as a whole. We want only to do what we have to do to get back home and tell the people we live with about our adventures. We take the world in pieces, those pieces only we use to our own purposes. We abstract.

We have a good word to describe this: play. Play is as fundamental as home. We can only get back home by playing. And we can play only because we have a home. Having a home is what makes play possible, which allows us to take a piece of the world, move it around experimentally, not think of the larger world around it, of its connections with the larger world. So unimportant are those uninvolved connections we positively prefer to separate what we are playing with from those outside relations by making them obviously unreal: we like to play with toys, we like to watch animated movies, look at comics, abstracted paintings, because they give us what we really are interested in working on, playing with, without unnecessary distractions. The unreality is part of what the toy is. It reflects that fact that the world is unreal exactly as much as it is not helping us get back home. Follow?
- Yes. I think so.
- We leave home, go hunting and gathering, school or work, cafe or library, whatever. This is terrifying at first, but there is a sense in which we learn how to do it, when over time and with success we make ourselves at home in making these repeated returns. When we manage this, we feel safe both at home and out in the world making our way back home, we feel happiness. If you want a definition of that word, happiness, there it is. And when we are happy, we play well. We experiment, investigate, we learn something that gets us back home. When we play well we are free. We know what we want, what is good. Because we know what we want, there is sense in saying we are guilty when we don't do what we should to get it. We are still in a world where correction has meaning, because we are dedicated to a process of correction, to getting out, to going home.

The Mayors and the University Chancellor are not going home, not to any real home. Blaming them doesn't remind them of what is better, in fact creates the fear that is the force behind their ritual making a home out in the world, applying whatever are at that moment the rules the group of strangers they live with demands.

The feeling of blame, assigning guilt, as a wish to harm is always a mistake. There are, separate from the feeling, practical arguments for punishment: some people are a danger and should be removed so others can feel safer out in the world, so others don't have to give the world the self defensive attention it doesn't deserve. Sometimes a wish to blame can be to bringing violent emotion into our own life as a reminder not to go that way. Which itself is blamable as ritual of making a home out in the world, just as it is blamable to hide a destructive urge to violence behind a practical proposal. Blame makes sense only when it is a name for feeling the importance and possibility of correction.

Destroy anything in the world and you make the world a more dangerous place, and when you go out into the world you'll have to spend your time defending yourself against it. Even a simple thing like throwing a piece of paper down in the street, if you observe yourself carefully, will show you that you've just acquired a new need to divide your attention between being creative and defensive. You think you are expressing defiance of rules, freedom from rules, but in fact you are paying too much attention, the wrong kind of attention to the world. Which results in making what you have to do, the play to get back home, more difficult. The greater the violence, the more you will deepen in yourself a habit of self defense and the more difficult you'll find it, weighed down by that, to get on with what you have to do. Violence in the feeling of blame is out of the question. The only blame that makes any sense is that which can turn someone back in the right direction. And we can only reasonable make such a judgement about people we know well, live with and love.
- But don't you think we need black and white, innocent and guilty, need to suffer ourselves so we can feel sympathy with others?
- There is a kind of pleasure that is the absence of pain. But there is also the pleasure of learning that doesn't depend of prior pain. There are many rules you can make. That is what we are talking about here. Not just variables x and y, suffering and sympathy. Love doesn't depend on prior suffering. Or if it does, it is that bad attachment you were talking about. It is not possible to love too much, only to love in the wrong way. The wrong way is to love in escape from the world. Is having a real home, but not learning how to move through the world to get back, in getting more and more afraid of being away from home every time you run back home to those you love. And then the fear enters into the home, when you insist on everything being done the same way as before, when you are afraid the home will dissolve at any moment. In effect, the experience of making rules by ritual among strangers has been brought back home, and made friends and lovers strangers to each other. The distinction that is important is how we relate to the world, not between things in the world, or things that happen to us.

We can divide the world up by suffering and sympathy, and an infinite number of rules of good and bad, better and worse. But there will be no fixed relation between the different rules we apply. It is as if each application of the rule gets us nowhere, in relation to the application of other rules. The same is true in the application of The Wrong Rule, with capital letters. Because the rules can be used endlessly in application to the world, there is no time in that world for the application of another rule. The world doesn't change. Real time is stopped. A new rule requires a new world to escape the endless application of the old. Zeno's paradox goes like this:

An arrow is flying towards a target. In half a second, it is half way there. In another fraction of that fraction of a second it is closer, in another fraction of that fraction of a second it is closer yet. If we keep on reducing the interval of time we measure, the arrow will always be making progress but never get to the target. The reason it never gets to the target is that though the number of additions of space we can measure is infinite, the time of the arrow's progress is not.
- I don't understand.
- The measurements are all taken within the first second of the arrow's flight. It won't get to the target until two seconds have passed. We have a rule of speaking and measuring that can be applied infinitely, within that first second, never getting beyond that first second. Do you see?
- Not really.
- Take the irrational number, I think that is what is called, .55555555.... That number can't be specified exactly, the more 5s we write the larger it grows, but no matter how many fives we add, the number never is going to get to .6. OK?
- Yes.
- This is what we are doing with Zeno's arrow. Within the first second along the arrow's path, we are taking an infinite number of measurements. Each time we do it, the arrow is getting a little ahead, but no matter how many times we measure, following our rule of reducing the interval of time we take the measurement, will we ever get to the second second. Think about writing those endless 5s.

The arrow is moving toward the target: that is us moving through the world, getting back home. We've chosen one of these binary rules, for example the one you brought up, suffering and sympathy. The infinite number of descriptions of stages in that passage of the arrow are the infinite number of times we can apply our rule. Not only are we are not going to get anywhere, there is going to be an unbridgeable gap between applying this rule and another rule.
- Why?
- Because the arrow never reaches the target. Because each rule has no time for the others in its infinite self occupation. The Chancellors "I don't want to hurt anyone" has no possible contact with "I must protect public health and safety". The rules come out of different worlds. The worlds don't connect with each other because no world actually moves. The arrow in the world, the repeated application of the rule, moves all the time but never gets where it is going. One unchanging world can not develop into another. Each world, like the arrow moving towards the target, is full of movement but getting nowhere.

Now imagine that the Chancellor says, blaming the protesters: "I didn't want to hurt anyone. It is their fault they got hurt". Violence establishes a connection between worlds, allows a story to be told of how one world of infinite applications of one rule is suddenly, and feels to be rightly, replaced by another world of infinite applications of another rule. The relation between worlds is one of deserved destruction of the old and replacement by the new. The new world of rules is born out of the ritual destruction of the old.
- These are amazing ideas.
- A little complicated maybe, but not compared to mathematics, no complex relation between dozens of variables: there are only two or three here. Home and world, love and play. It's a model. We need models, and they have to be simple, because when the subject is ourselves we have big problems thinking well. We use knowledge against ourselves, we use knowledge in a way that blocks our learning.
- How?
- Everything we learn can be held onto and become the basis of ritual. We've learned how to remind ourselves of the different fundamental ways we live, in love, and in acting in the world. We construct religons as tools to remind us of this, god and not god, real and not real. And then, as we have been talking about, we run away from the world back to restating this reminder that has become a formula. We become more and more afraid of the world, and the rule which originally helped us get back to the practice of love now in fact prevents us from loving by making us strangers to each other in the collective practice of restating and restating the rule.

Everything we learn can be misused in this way, every game, every toy played with can be played to learn, or played as evasion from facing difficulties. Each time we let violence, threat, fear shock us into constructing a ritual, we get off the path of returning home. Each act of violence is an emergence of the infinite into our lives where it doesn't belong.
- Where does it belong?
- At home, in the experience of love. When away from home you know there is a path you have to find and, when you do, have to have an idea where you are on it. In making the different measurements of the progress of Zeno's arrow there is a rule you are following, but it refers only to how you will repeat your measurements, not at all to what really is happening to the arrow in the world it is flying through. From the Chancellor of U.C. Davis saying one day, We need to protect public heath & safety, to the next day saying she never wanted anyone to be hurt, there is no connection. No path. Nothing in her application of rules required her to look at the fact that protecting public health and safety meant people getting hurt. There is no logical connection between application of different rules, only the rule of what motivates the applications of rules: keeping safe in her group.

Everything we've talked about applies to the Occupy movement. The protesters say to the government: you are applying the wrong rules. Not public health and safety, but free speech, free assembly. The protesters do not make demands because the government, in applying one rule after another, each application of rule unrelated to the other, even if it accepted a demand the acceptance would have no effect on subsequent actions, the agreement would vanish in the infinite nothingness between different worlds of rules.

The protesters don't see a set of new rules they want, so they don't specify them. You won't hear much from them on the subjects of redistribution of wealth, communism, anarchism. They want government back in its right place: in the world of play, where everything is experimental. They want experimental application of rules that still seem to work, such as, take away from criminals the fruits of their crime, such as keep government institutions so long as they work, look for alternatives if they don't. Such as not wishing anyone harm, because what everyone needs is the finite to experiment on, and each act of violence creates an opening for the infinite that makes it just so much harder getting home.