Category: Reductio ad Absurdum

Chaos and Breakfast

Today I caught myself staring at a plate. Not a decorative plate you understand. It wasn’t some kitsch monstrosity slap-dashed with paint splotches in the vague shape of a flower, nor some painfully abstract sketch in an imitation of Miro, or even some sterile-blue china ready to crack at a misplaced whisper (all of which decorated our old lounge at one point or another). No, this was a simple piece of plain white crockery.

Minutes before it held my gaze it held my breakfast. Two rashers of bacon and an egg. That’s not my usual breakfast you understand. The bacon’s bought for a BLT that’s always more L and T than B, and the eggs are for chocolate chip cookies. However, I’d run out of milk the previous evening and hence had nothing to wet my muesli with but water, and I wasn’t trying that again anytime soon. As such, I was forced by circumstance and a lack of foresight to eat a manly concoction of protein and grease.

I ate absently, as I usually do, mind otherwise occupied by solemn fantasies and trivial ethics. In fact, it took me about an hour between finishing my meal to realise that my plate was empty. As you may have guessed, I’m not a morning person.

I took the plate to the sink and ran the tap, running a weak stream over the congealed brown and yellow left by pig-flesh and yolk. As I looked down to seek the sponge I saw that the excess dirt had drifted but had left a complex strata behind, stark shades of brown against the white. It was at this point I paused. The plate held flatly between thumbs and fingers, arms extended stiffly over the sink, my eyes were transfixed by the lines and curves that waxed and twisted on the dish’s surface, the by-product of my near-mechanical ingestion.

I swirled the remaining water around the plate, some of the shapes shifted and dropped, but most endured, showing me that this structure was somehow basic. It would not be so easily shifted. Like the coffee dregs at the base of my cooling cup, my mind slowly slugged into motion and I wondered why I was so captivated.  There was no particular reason to it, no prophet’s face appeared in the crumbs of bacon, no divine message, scrambled or otherwise, sprung from my egg’s remains. So what, then, had captured my attention?

As I reflected, I realised that I was searching for some pattern in the stains. I recalled the Miro plate from our old lounge (very out of place in a room of faux Victorian charm) and tried to dissect mine similarly, disassembling the abstract whole to search for lines and shapes of concrete certainty. I recalled the floral monstrosities (dabbed by someone who had once seen a Monet in a coffee table book) and tried to step back from the basic, disconnected daubs and search for a coherent whole from a distance. I traced the yolky curves to find the Golden Spiral, measured between the grease spots to discover fractals, I even examined the negative space of the white ceramic to see if the answer I sought was evident in absence rather than presence.

However, no matter what I tried, it all failed. Despite the fact that my mind, through both reason and heuristics, is designed to find order where it is and project it where it’s lacking, I could not find the faintest pattern in the utter chaos left by my breakfast. And yet, the unsettling notion that there really should be one weighed on my stomach as heavily as a full-English.

Then I realised that I was despairing over a dirty plate and wiped away the mess with a single sweep of the sponge.

Existential Daisies

A few days ago I was in London’s centre and found myself staring at a field of daisies. One might think ‘field’ a rather strong term, but I was down there to look at flats and can assure you that by London standards this was the most glorious of meadows.

In any case, I had some downtime and found myself meditating on one daisy in particular. There was nothing particularly special about it. Its stem was bent, its flower was asymmetric and it was definitely not the tallest. Yet, it was the one closest to me and was right in the centre of my field of vision.

I found myself examining it in great detail, every inch of the stem and every browning satin petal. After a few minutes I could have told you everything there was to know about this daisy. I knew it intimately that if someone had come and plucked it (or the yappy Pomeranian running about had pissed on it) I would have been very put out.

After a while I realised how odd I looked and straightened up to pretend to be vaguely normal. But as I did so, my senses were assaulted. I truly noticed for the first time the entire field of daisies, realised for the first time that each was as detailed and whole as the one that had occupied my attention for so long.

I hate to think what the Pomeranian’s attractive owner might have thought when she saw my eyes widen as my senses were overloaded. Luckily, she was too preoccupied with her phone to notice.

Over the next half hour I pondered and as I did I realised that there were about a hundred different ways I could frame my experience, each with its own distinct flavour.

I could consider it a bitter metaphor for how self-centred we are, that although every person is as unique and different as each daisy in the field, they all blend into the background as we focus on ourselves above all others.

It could be a despairing realisation about the futility of seeking knowledge. I had spent so long studying one subject, and only at the end of my incredibly specific study had I discovered that there was a practical infinity of facts to be learned solely in my field of vision. How does a man with a thirst for knowledge live? In an infinite library filled with every answer to every question, what book should one pick up first?

Recalling something philosophical from my undergraduate years, I substituted space for time and imagined that all the daisies before me were in fact distinct temporal instances of the same individual subject. On the Humean view of the self, we are not the same bundle of experiences in one moment as we are in the next, so how can we claim that a constant Self is anything but an illusion? Suddenly, the daisies became illustrative of the most severe existential crisis as I became aware of my infinite plurality and hence my non-existence. But then that moment passed and I was no longer that discontent person.

Reflecting on the first thought, I saw that there was a moral lesson to be had. Perhaps if we attempted to acknowledge each person as closely as we acknowledge ourselves, understanding that each has their own desires, beliefs, emotions, we would perhaps better understand the consequences of our actions, and act more kindly towards our fellows. But how then to cope with that horrific impact, that multiplication of despair when we suddenly realise the true loss and tragedy when thousands die from an earthquake or flood? To connect with all as closely as we connect with ourselves would surely be fatal to our psyche.

At this point my alarm sounded and reminded me that I had another viewing to get to. I banished my musings and attempted to steel myself for the confines of the tube journey I’d have to endure shortly. I saw with relief that the Pomeranian had left with her owner and my daisy had been left unmolested.

As I walked to the park’s exit I looked back at the dank patch of grass and saw nothing but some blurry patches of white. They were only daisies after all.

The Father’s Day Lottery

I encountered a strange offer a couple of weeks ago. While grocery shopping I was solicited to buy a lottery ticket (with the jackpot valued at £2.2 million), not for myself, but as a father’s day gift. Naturally, I dismissed the offer and went on my merry way but as I did so something nagged at me.

Who on earth would buy a lottery ticket for someone else?

Now, I say this not because a lottery ticket is a terrible gift (although it is) but because I could think of no line of reasoning which would allow someone to think this is a rational action, regardless of their prior beliefs about the lottery.

Let’s imagine person X, who, although being a rational agent, has no understanding of probability and so doesn’t know that expected value of a lottery ticket is infinitesimally close to zero.

X can expect one of two things.

a) That his ticket will lose.

b) That his ticket will win.

In scenario a) gifting this lottery ticket to his father is akin to handing him a receipt. X has simply wasted money which could have been better spent a Father’s day card. This would of course communicate a far better sentiment than a useless scrap of paper.

I find scenario b) far more troubling. Gifting this ticket would be the equivalent of X giving his father £2.2 million. Now, I love my father as much as any son, but I certainly wouldn’t give him £2.2 million as a Father’s day gift (sorry dad). X here either possesses an unrivalled level of filial devotion, or is attempting to make amends for being the primary drain on his father’s finances for his entire life.

For my entire walk home I struggled with this question, feeling very inferior as I imagined the kind of son who would casually drop his dad enough money for a small yacht. My confusion only increased when I realised that the lotto promoters clearly thought there were enough of these sons to constitute a market.

However, by the time I’d reached my flat and put my groceries away, I realised that I had neglected something important, namely the expectations of the receiving party.

Let’s once again make the dubious assumption that X is a rational agent and assume that his father, hereby referred to as Y, is also one. Let’s also assume that X is sufficiently knowledgeable about his father’s beliefs about the lottery. The following options exist.

a) X and Y believe that the ticket will win.

b) X believes that the ticket will win and Y believes that it will lose.

c)  X and Y believe that the ticket will lose.

d) X believes that the ticket will lose and Y believes that it will win.

Scenario a) still makes little sense to me. Despite the fact that X is now assured that his father will appreciate the gift of £2.2 million, it still seems rather excessive a gift. Not to mention, this is father’s day we’re talking about. How does X think he’s going to top this gift when his father’s birthday rolls around?

Strangely enough, b) makes more sense as although X expects his father to be disappointed at the useless gift he’s been given, he also expects to be vindicated when his father does eventually win. Whether a sense of smug satisfaction is worth the over £2 million that could have been his is still up for debate of course.

I’d like to believe that somewhere, come this week’s lottery, scenario c) will occur. X watches his father excitedly rip open the envelope only to see his smile fade into a puzzled frown. The father’s eyes slowly rise to meet his son’s who, in turn, stares at him blankly. Ten awkward seconds pass then, finally, X speaks. ‘Happy Father’s Day’ he whispers contemptuously, before stealing all the food in the fridge and running out the house.

And that leaves us with d) which strikes me as by far the most plausible scenario. X spends a paltry two pounds and watches as his father bursts into tears of surprise and joy. After all, Dad believes that his son (who he’d always assumed to be an ungrateful little prick) values their relationship at over £2 million.

For the following days, X is treated like a king. He’s waited on hand and foot by his parents, he sits at the head of the table and his little sister’s college fund is plundered to buy him a Lexus. Meanwhile Daddy dearest is completely overcome with gratitude and guilt for having ever considered kicking him out the house (in spite of the fact X is over 30 and unemployed).

Then, at last the fateful evening comes. The family gathers in front of the telly: Mother’s wringing her hands nervously, little sister’s sulking on the floor filling in food service job applications and Dad’s planted firmly in the centre of the couch, held rapt by Gaby Roslin’s chirpy preamble. His ticket clasped firmly in his left hand, his son hugged tightly by his right. Gaby hands over to the disembodied Alan who announces the jackpot to a fanfare! Dad’s grip tightens on X’s shoulder, and his eyes fill with tears again.

The drums begin to pound, Lancelot starts to spin and the balls drop and churn. Dad’s chest is heaving. His son’s devotion (which he’d questioned ever since that incident with the wasps and the metal detector) is finally going to be confirmed. No longer will he have to slave away in his nine-to-five job packing boxes at the cog factory. He’ll quit tomorrow and retire to Florida with Mother. That’ll save their dying marriage. They’ll find somewhere on the coast. Nowhere too fancy, just enough room for the two of them and a guest bedroom for their loving son of course, who’ll no doubt visit them every year. He’ll buy a boat and spend his days deep-sea fishing while Mother joins a country club and rediscovers her passion for painting. They’ll be so happy, perhaps she’ll even let him…

‘Dad?’

He snaps out of his daydream and glares at his daughter, but before he can reproach her for ruining his daydream he sees the concern on her face. He wheels round to look at Mother whose face has drained to a deathly white. His stomach drops as his head slowly turns towards the T.V. The music’s stopped, Gabby’s chirping again and the life-changing numbers are lined at the bottom of the screen. He doesn’t understand at first. This can’t be right. He knew he was going to win. But slowly, confusion gives way to a cold horror. His fingers loosen and the ticket floats the floor useless and forgotten. He’s lost.

Suddenly, he becomes aware of a cold presence on his right and, like a man etherised, his head turns.

X is staring at him with cold, dead eyes. The bottom falls out of Dad’s world as he finally realises the full extent of his son’s malice. He tries to speak but all that comes out is a single despairing croak.

Then, like an awful serpent, X’s lips part. ‘Happy Father’s Day’ he whispers, before striding out the door, slamming it behind him. There’s a purr as the Lexus starts up followed by a screech as it pulls out of the drive, never to be seen again.

So, yeah. Stick to buying your dad a card.

Happy father’s day everyone!

Justifying Ignorance

I watched a video today. This one in fact. It’s a damning indictment of food marketing and battery farming delivered by an eager young presenter. She ends this wonderfully delivered speech with an accusation of willful ignorance. We, the consumer, are guilty of turning a blind eye to animal suffering, not out of horror or disgust but for the sake of convenience.

As I prepare to eat the massive bowl of fried chicken in front of me, I find myself agreeing with her. Willful ignorance is a powerful tool and it is one that we all employ daily. And its use is far wider than ignoring the plight of animals who wouldn’t exist if we didn’t find them so delicious.

Suffering is everywhere in the world. In fact, there is so much that the following issues have become cliché. There are people homeless and destitute in every major city, people constantly persecuted for reasons of race, gender and sexuality, and let’s not the starving children in Africa who remain hungry despite the efforts of Bono and Make Poverty History (still going, by the way, despite flagging wristband sales).

Why then do we as individuals not spend every minute of every day working tirelessly to solve these problems (as we no doubt would if we were ‘good’ people)? Why, of course, because we insulate ourselves with willful ignorance. Yes, occasionally we might find something that penetrates our protective layers of justification and distraction but all too often, our disgust and horror is momentary, or easily salved by sharing an article on Facebook or Tweeting (#BringBackOurGirls anyone?).

We so easily justify our inaction. In the best cases we simply absolve ourselves of responsibility telling ourselves ‘It’s not my problem, not my fault'; in darker times we might blame the victims or we might simply forget once the media has lost its taste for the tragedy.

I have my own rather convoluted justifications for my laissez-faire attitudes. I don’t give to charity (‘Not until I have a steady income’), I ignore every one of the twenty or so homeless people I pass every day (‘I can’t help all of them’) and I eat copious amounts of meat, eggs and milk (I’m rather proud of this one ‘Animals can’t be considered worthy of ethical consideration’).

Of course, I am doing many of you a disservice by comparing you to me. I am very and genuinely happy to know a large number of good people. People who volunteer abroad, who give to charity, who heal the sick, who fight tirelessly against the injustices of the world. However, willful ignorance is an insidious beast and if one searches for it, it can easily be found.

What do I mean by this? Well, how often when you buy a book, a film, a meal out, or even pay your rent, your internet, your phone bill, do you consider the impact that your spending has on those who have nothing? If it’s any less than 100% of the time then you are guilty of willful ignorance. The reason for this is that in order to prevent yourself from doing very measurable harm to others, you must remain ever vigilant.

Surely purchasing any form of entertainment is not just frivolity but harmful to those who could benefit from the money in your hand. In fact the more good you already do, the greater the evil. The less ignorant you are of the plight of others the more willful you must surely be to justify the purchases that condemn them. Did I mention that the point of this blog was to sell my book?

Now, I have no doubt that all the world’s ethicists, from the Kantians to the consequentialists have serious qualms about the above. The former will say that such self-sacrifice is irrational and the latter say it is unsustainable (do check out Effective Altruism by the way) and there is certainly weight to they say. However, there is a tacit admission behind these claims, and that is this: our ideals are too lofty for us to attain. Willful ignorance is more than just a tool to be used at our convenience, it is a part of our very nature.

We cannot blame ourselves for not giving all we should, because what we ‘should’ is very different to what we ‘can’. This reassures me greatly, however, the very fact that it does rings false. It reeks of convenience. Isn’t the purpose of an ideal to be something to strive towards? Shouldn’t we attempt to overcome our nature at all costs, raising ourselves from mere beasts, mere slaves to impulse to something greater, something transcendent? This is a question that I don’t want to consider right now.

I choose to stay purposefully and willfully ignorant.

© 2017 Michael Scoins