Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The End of an Era

Today is the last day of my third decade of life. It's kind of hard to believe. I was filling out something earlier today that asked for my age, and I had to pause when I realized it would be different tomorrow.

Melodrama aside, I like to take advantage of life events to do a little introspection. For this instance, I started by attempting to sum up my entire philosophy into a single sentence:

There are no absolute truths.

Anything that I was taught growing up to be "truth" was in fact a clever, superficial construction masking the uncertainty beneath. Murder is always wrong. But I don't know that I'd be able to convict someone for killing Osama bin Laden. "i" before "e" except after "c". Either I'm dumb or I just legally broke that rule. 2 + 2 = 4. Not true in Z mod 3.

I'm playing semantic games, I know. However, that is the point. Every truth that I have ever learned is nothing more than a construct to describe something in relation to a particular frame of reference. None of them hold given across all environments. I.e., there are no absolute truths.

Yet, there's a problem. I have just asserted an absolute truth. Thus, my statement is specious. However, I cannot assert that there must be an absolute truth. In order to make that claim, I must have a hunch as to the nature of that truth. For starters, it must be tautological. That's great, but it doesn't really tell me much about the truth itself. However, that's all I can say given that I am trying to describe an absolute truth without loss of generality. Thus, this line of reasoning does not accomplish much.

So I could attempt to find an absolute truth. I must confess that I believe this is beyond my ability. As I described above, all truths I have thought I knew turned out to be lacking. Just as the word "table" is only an abstraction of this piece of furniture upon which my laptop rests, every thought seems to be a symbol of the underlying concept.

Some may accuse me of solipsism at this point, but that is not my goal. Instead, I simply want to express how amazed I am by everything. This may seem like a non sequitur, but I feel that our society (or perhaps all?) idolizes childhood and innocence too much. I am thinking specifically about the way that children can be awestruck by so many things. Try explaining the concept of a million to a six-year-old and you'll probably here something like, "Whoa! That's a lot!" We conflate "purity" with "goodness," and children are the purest of all.

However, it is the loss of purity that allows for a richer understanding. When that six-year-old says the word, "Whoa," the concept of a million is no longer a foreign thing. Instead, their mind has now been tainted in an irreversible way. The mental processes that associate "million" with "a large quantity" will not go away (barring exceptions like mental illness or death, but those are tangential discussions anyway). And that child's understanding of the nature of the universe has expanded. They can now use the idea of a "million" as a building block toward other pieces of knowledge that they were previously unable to grasp.

Obviously, concepts like "thought" and "knowledge" have been on my mind a lot recently. I guess being enrolled in an Artificial Intelligence course does that. My other class is Computability & Formal Language Theory. Both have been fascinating. For example, most people understand the idea of a computer program. You double click on your Mozilla Firefox icon, the computer does some stuff, and you can read this blog. But what is a program? What does it actually do? Is there anything that cannot be solved by a program? My Computability class deals with these types of questions, and, consequently, lets me understand things about programs that I had never thought of before. The more that I work with computers, the more I start to get a glimpse of how little I have actually learned about them.

Thus, we arrive at the point I've been struggling to make this entire time. In 30 years, I've learned a lot of facts. I've memorized formulas, written papers, tasted coffee, smelled dead skunks, gone crowd surfing at a concert, loved, proven that the square root of 2 is irrational, laughed at Monty Python skits, wept in the rain with a broken heart, read all 1400 pages of Les Miserables twice, felt the thrill of performing in front of 30,000 screaming fans. None of these things, in and of themselves, make me exceptional in any way. Yet, there is not, and never will be, another person who will experience this particular combination of events. And that does make me unique.

But all of those experiences and facts are just that. They are not wisdom. They are not truth. My perceptions of them has contributed to my understanding of the way the universe works. And yet, my understanding is nothing more than my own mental construct that serves as a mental abstraction of some underlying thing. What that underlying thing is, I cannot say. Is it an underlying ultimate truth? Is it God? Or is it actually nothing at all? I have no idea, and never will. And yet that does not detract from my pursuit to do so.

And we are back at the beginning. On the eve of my 30th birthday, the closest thing that I can say to sum up the collective wisdom of my time here on earth is this:

I know nothing.


At 10:35 AM, Blogger Christina said...

My brain hurts now. ;)

Hope you have a wonderful birthday. We will be sure to buy you a brew next weekend to celebrate your entrance into Club 30.

At 1:06 PM, Blogger Michael said...

I'm a graduate student. What do you expect?


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