Sunday, November 13, 2016

In search of happiness

If you see the world differently you should ask yourself this: “Do I see things more clearly than everyone else or am I simply (more) messed up?” 

The odds favour the latter.

Bro’ do you even lift do physics?

When I was a teenager I had an insoluble problem. Well, actually, like all teenagers I had many problems, but one problem preoccupied me by my inability to get around it. The problem I had was the race between the tortoise and the hare. In a real world (as opposed to the Aesop’s fable) the hare wins the race. But I couldn’t help thinking about the start of the race and dissecting back ad-infinitum to the very start of the race. If we did that then the hare’s lead diminishes to nothingness. My conclusion was that the infinitely divisible cannot exist: for if it did, then nothing ever happens. 

My reasoning went a bit like this: If the hare runs at, say, 10m/s and the tortoise at, say, 1m/s (it’s a fast tortoise) then at 1 second after the start the hare would be 9m ahead of the tortoise (assuming a flying start to negate acceleration). Pretty impressive to say the least. At 1/2 second that lead is still an impressive 4.5m. At 1/4 sec the lead is 2.25m. At 1/8 sec it is 1.125m. At 1/16 second it is 56.25cm and so on. As speed is distance travelled divided by the time taken - and assuming the hare is 10x faster than the tortoise - then the distance the hare is ahead of the tortoise at any set time is simply 9 x t (where t = time taken). If “t” is infinitesimally small then 9 x t, or 100 x t, or any “massive number that isn’t infinite” x t is still, essentially, nothing. Moreover, if t is infinitely small than the difference is absolutely nothing. This didn’t make any sense. 

Luckily I did some physics at high school and learnt something about the fixed energy states of electrons (around an atomic nucleus) and, over time, the concept of quanta became another matter-of-fact that underpinned my understanding of the world. Without thinking any more about it I accepted that some physical constant governing indivisibility along with the other fundamental constants meant the universe existed as I experienced it. And that was that. 

Lucky. If I had tried to make any sense of it I might have become a physicist. And if I did I would have discovered that my question was more elegantly stated 2,500 years earlier in Zeno’s paradox of Archilles and the tortoise* and that the problem (of why the universe exists) remains insoluble. 

But enough of that. I want to discuss two unassailable truths.

Here’s the first truth:

Happiness is not the point of life any more than blue is the point of colour. 

It surprises me how few people understand this.

Sure, it is important to seek happiness but no more so than seeking food, and shelter, companionship, knowledge, financial security, emotional sustenance, self-actualisation.. What happiness means to you depends on where you are at that particular point in time. If you are lucky happiness might be about fulfilment and purpose. If you are less lucky happiness might be about having enough food to eat. Happiness also doesn’t exist without pain, suffering, fear, anger, boredom, regret, envy and all those other emotions/ situations we would rather avoid. Happiness is a part of life. It’s a good part (and something worth striving for) but only ever a part of the whole.

Let me ask you a question. What is the colour blue? If I say the word “blue” do you conjure a colour of the same hue, value or intensity as what I have in my head? Even if we look at the same blue panel do we register the image in exactly the same way? In other words, is my blue your blue? The question is important because such registration might be the only thing we have in common. Beyond the image registration the thought processing is almost certainly different between us. Blue is my favourite colour. Is it yours? What about the colour red? What about the smell of a flower? The sound of rain on a hot tin roof?

This leads me to the second truth: 

We are alone.

No matter how much love we feel for those around us (and how connected we think we are) we can only ever know what it’s like to be ourselves. And even then we can only ever know what it’s like to be ourselves in the present. We don’t know the future and the past gets clouded by a host of factors governing memory, reflection and judgement (by ourselves as well as others). Sure, surround yourself with people and things for that is what it takes to be human - to be part of humanity. But, when everything is (quite literally) said and done, you’re on your own. Get comfortable with it. 

I don’t know if we live in a deterministic universe. I don’t know whether there is such a thing as free will and thereby a means by which we can control the course of our lives. No one really knows. Yet this is the deepest truth and we should seek to answer it. 

But for me, in the meantime, right now, the question is not so much why the hare can pass the tortoise but the consequence of the reality that it does. 

*If you think that the mathematical solution for a simple convergent series is cool then take a look at the solution for a simple divergent series by the same YouTuber here. Mind-blowing stuff this mathematics. 

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