Friday, June 19, 2009

Recollection of the Future

We all have gut feelings, ominous premonitions, mental states that make us step back for a second and think about what we are doing. Some would call them hints by God to be careful, they could also be labeled as reactionary mechanisms that have evolved in a Darwinian method throughout the history of our species. Without a doubt, though, these fleeting states of mind, the ephemeral glimpses of the true reality of the situation, have a lot to do with the way we live our lives. In many cases, the premonitions that we have often outweigh any empirical evidence describing what should be the case. Empirical evidence is very convincing. Scientific data giving probabilities of failure and success, chances of survival, predictions of reactionary chains of events: it usually is correct without fail. But so much of our life is lived off of first impressions, gut feelings, premonitions; a lot of the time, we are highly successful relying on these methods.

The failure of empirical evidence is evident in every action that we take. The world would be a boring place if it were entirely predictable by scientific postulates and mathematical formulas. Knowing exactly what is going to happen before it does takes away a lot of the sense of adventure. Life needs the unexpected. Pleasant surprises are an important way to learn lessons. What's even worse about scientific datum, however, is that although they can adequately explain events that have happened in the past, their legitimacy fails in both the present and future. The classic example is that of gravity. Perhaps one of the most predictable forces on this little corner of the universe, yet we cannot explain its origins. The consequences of gravity are easily understood. You drop an object, and unless it is subject to a substantial number of additional forces, it drops to the ground. This is repeatable without fail. However, just because the object continues to fall to the ground, there is no necessary proof that it will continue to do so in the future. This is one of the great puzzles of western philosophy.

Our entire worldview is structured such that we observe our surroundings with a wholly scientific mind. It is the western way. Education, observation, the growth and decline of civilizations is all dependent on a scientific method of learning. As such, it is based on empirical evidence, and trends that have been observed through the analysis of that evidence. Everything from designing a satellite to designing a constitution for a new democracy is proof of this. The way that I structure this blog entry is proof of this. The way that I learned to skydive and slackline is proof of this. We approach the world with a very scientific mind, and therefore learn from and interact with it in a very scientific way. Slacklining, as I experience it, is one of the most zen-like activities that I pursue. However, the fatal flaw in my learning was that I approached it scientifically. Through steps, progress checks, and self-assessment, I scientifically analyze every step along the way in order to improve my skill level. It is the only way that I know. This juxtaposition between scientific learning for a zen pursuit is staggeringly odd. How could one facilitate the other?

I have come to believe that a method of scientific learning has limitations: It is subject to the understand of what has happened before, not what is happening, and what will be happening in the future. Just because something has continued to work in the past by no means gives justification for the belief that it will happen again in the future. This world is very complex, it is filled with surprise and mystique. There are so many things that we try to know about the universe, which are undeniably difficult, if not impossible to learn through a scientific method. In these cases, intuition, gut feelings, and subconscious thought really do a lot to define the truths of this world. Intuitions tell not of the past, but of the present and the future. Although sometimes less predictable than scientific evidence, the success rate of intuition is staggeringly high for something that requires no thought and no evidence to acquire.

This past weekend was filled with premonition, and doubt. I was getting ready to skydive Saturday morning, and had the strangest feeling that something was going to go horribly wrong. I did a couple more practices of my emergency procedures to prepare myself, but kept feeling some sort of voice in the back of my head warning me about the next jump. It wasn't telling me not to jump, but just to be careful. Mind you, these sorts of voices occur all the time while participating in an extreme sport, but this was a little different. More intense, more focused. I decided to go on the jump anyway, as I recklessly thought that life is too short to listen to all the voices anyway. (If we stood down every time we were nervous about taking a chance, life would be exceptionally boring). The jump was wonderful. I led a tracking dive on my back and two of my friends came in and docked on either side of me in a V formation as we flew a little more than a mile south of the airport. When it came time to open my parachute, however, things started to go even further south. I opened in a track, to ensure proper separation from my fellow jumpers (canopy collision during or directly after opening is one of the leading causes of death in skydiving). This type of opening caused my parachute to come out much faster. Apparently I had a weak point in the fabric, because when it inflated, with a "snap", the parachute spun up violently and as I looked up I noticed a large hole in the bottom skin of the parachute. It was about a foot in diameter, and caused my parachute to turn to the left on its own. Luckily, I was still able to land the parachute with the hole, but it was a very gripping experience.

My adrenaline had kicked in and I found the peaceful state of mind that (for me) accompanies being in stressful and extreme situations. I was able to act quickly and safely to prevent injury and/or further damage. I even landed in-bounds next to the runway, despite having to fly a mile back under an injured wing. However, it wasn't until that night, several hours later, when I realized that I had a premonition which accurately predicted the intensity of the situation. A voice had told me something would go wrong, and it did. This is obvious evidence of the power of intuition and gut feelings. In this case, the feelings were right. How could empirical data have predicted the failing of my parachute? Even worse, how could something completely unaffiliated with the construction of my canopy and the circumstances of its failure adequately predict the level of danger I was placing myself in? I would disregard it if this had not happened before, but it happens often.

Premonition is a powerful tool in the backcountry as well. When climbing high altitude peaks, traversing through avalanche terrain, crawling to the exit point of a BASE jump, the internal dialogue with your surroundings is very real. Countless stories of dramatic events in the backcountry are accompanied by descriptions of dreams foreshadowing the future, of premonitions, or just general gut-wrenching feelings. Usually, these feelings are right. It is very difficult to believe that these have any real effect on the events because we are brought up in such a scientific world, with a mechanistic understanding of events and how they unfold. But let's take a look at the origins of western thought, and the understanding of knowledge.

In Meno, an ancient text discussing the meaning of virtue, Socrates is simultaneously explaining to his interlocutor the origins of knowledge. After all, how could one know about virtue if one didn't know about knowing first? (typical Socratic nonsense). But there are a few gems in what he has to say. One of the classic examples of this occurs in the interaction between Socrates and a slave boy. Socrates asks the slave boy simple questions about geometry, questions that are easily answered by the boy. Socrates asks a few more difficult questions, and the slave boy struggles a bit, but comes up with the answer on his own. Socrates finally asks a very difficult question, and the slave boy admits that he does not know the answer. However, Socrates is persistent. Through a few leading questions from Socrates, the boy is able to show that he knows the answer. Admittedly, this sounds a lot more like teaching to me, but Socrates portrays the following message from this discussion: "learning is not a matter of discovering something new but rather of recollecting something the soul knew before birth but has since forgotten". The slave boy is able to discover the answers to the geometric questions which Socrates asks, and this is because the boy knew the answer all along, he simply had to recollect the answer.

Although Socrates redirects this to a discussion of virtue, it is very influential in the understanding of premonitions as well, mainly: where do these ideas of the future come from, if not from scientific evidence? Perhaps, as with the case of the boy, we already know the answers to the questions that we have every day. Why are we here? Can I fly? How can I best show my love for another person? Every time we ask a question, we can search inside ourselves to find the answer. Every time we have a problem, we can search inside ourselves to find a solution. This is what Socrates is saying. In the case of recollection of the future, we are simply searching inside ourselves for what we already know. We already know how why we are here, we already know if we can fly, we already know how we will die and how we will live. It is simply a matter of pursuing the right experiences in our life that will show us what we already know. By putting ourselves in the right situations, we can easily discover the answers. This is where gut feelings and premonitions come from. This is where remembering the future takes place. You can't depend on scientific data to show you the way of your world.

I'm not saying this is the right interpretation, but it is one interpretation. I would get severely ridiculed if I actually claimed that I could predict the future because I already know the future. But this isn't the right way to look at it. Instead, we can use premonitions and thoughts of the future as tools. Each time we are gifted with the ability to lucidly observe events that will happen, we should use it to our advantage, to help make our lives better. Each time we are gifted with a recollection of the future, we should see how that helps us answer the deepest questions that we have in this life. These are tools to assist us to become the best possible beings we can. These are tools that open our eyes to the inside of ourselves, and the inside of others. The recollection of the future is an important part of seeing the real world, and loving all of the beings inside it.

A quote from chapter 33 in the Tao Te Ching:

Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self requires strength;
He who knows he has enough is rich.
Perseverance is a sign of will power.
He who stays where he is endures.
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful, profound and oh so wise. Your tome is why I have always thought that you are an old soul in a young body, living life again and making it even better than the last time. Live Well and Love Life!

Said said...

Solid. Way to throw some intellect in this game we call Life.