Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Human Conceit: In Search of the Perfect Juggler

Dramatis personæ for this evening's play: a cyclist, some cars, a road, at dusk.
A traveling medieval theater show is what I think of when I want to define the word "conceit," in this sense: drama has a central, somewhat fantastic concept that you have to accept, often via suspension of disbelief, for the drama to work. It's the core IF-THEN of the enterprise: IF (somewhat fantastic concept) THEN (the consequences follow). If you don't buy the conceit, then of course, the consequences which ensue will not engage you, not make sense, seem inconsequential. The play simply won't work for you. 
Once you buy into the conceit, you become invested in the consequences, and have a chance for a little bit of catharsis, perhaps. What-if? Well, then, quite possibly this interesting and dramatic and unexpected series of events will follow, leading to a climactic conclusion.

A man riding his donkey through the desert determines that they are lost, and the donkey begins talking to him about the ten years they've spent together, with a rather dark outlook for their prospects for survival or finding their way home. That's a conceit.

Guy swerved into my bike lane governed by the HLF, not his conceit, I guarantee

The conceits that work the best are often those which are borderline impossible, yet quite plausibly linked with the facts of the characters, the context of the play, this historical setting of the production and the incidentals. Understanding and unraveling the facts helps to illuminate the conceit, and in the best of circumstances, the conceit illuminates the facts. 

In terms of us humans, the high-level facts (the HLF) are that we are the product of 400 million years of the evolution of life with the A#1 target of living long enough to reproduce and pass on our genes. Subservient to A#1 but not exactly the same thing, we are wired to do whatever it takes to feed and fight to increase the chances that we see tomorrow.*

The human conceit, of course, is that life has a purpose, or a meaning, or that it all makes sense, or that it will all work out, something along those lines, each of us clinging to and buying into different versions at different points.** 

Next time someone tells me they understand someone's motivation, I'm thinking HLF? Or human conceit?
My purpose here is not to unravel, prove or disprove a particular version of the human conceit, as fun as that might be. You stick with yours, I'll stick with mine, love will find a way. Rather, I just wish to point out that there is such a thing, and that we don't usually think of things in that light. The human conceit is a conditional such that

IF (human conceit) THEN (life is consequential, we're bought in, we're invested, it flows, life's play works for us)

I actually am raising it not to question my conceit, or yours, or anyone's, but for two reasons, the first philosophical or logical, and the second, operational in nature.

So first, whatever conceit one adheres to, how would it be possible to reconcile it with the HLF listed above? That is, if we operated according the the HLF, in effect making the HLF our conceit, what would we do differently, how would life change, what would we become? But for almost any modern human, it seems to me that taking on the HLF as the human conceit would appear to be unthinkable. Suggesting that the HLF are a viable version of the human conceit would be considered impolite, narrowminded, reductionist, etc. And most would deny that it was appropriate or valid to do so, anyway.*** 

Second, and however, knowing some people well enough to be familiar with their own personal version of the human conceit, I observe them operate, watch what they do and how they do it, and I'm here to tell you, operationally, many humans day in, day out, appear to be governed much more by the HLF than by their personal version of the human conceit, no matter what they say or believe. I find that somewhat disheartening, although maybe I should not. It is what it is, love will prevail.

But I enjoy a good play. I need some solid catharsis on a more-than-occassional basis. Like I said, I don't think these observations lead one way or another in terms of evaluating a particular version of the human conceit, or of the various multitude of consequences which may flow from them. What I do think is, it may call into question the IF-THEN construct itself, that when you recognize that the view is wrong, it is certainly valid to question the eyes which are doing the viewing, and also the scenery you see through the window, but what about the window itself? Is it perfectly clear? Could it be what's skewing the view? 

Cogito ergo sum. Philosophers who focus on the ergo have always made the most sense to me. In thinking about the human conceit on my commute ride home, and as I neared home, I thought, really? This is how we buy in, this is how we make sense, this is how we know the play works for us? While meanwhile the philosophical/logical and operational issues I raised above? HLF or conceit, that's it? Am I getting derailed by my semantic heritage, is it time to look for an internally geared IF-THEN, or go fixed syntax?

Fortunately, many traveling medieval shows included a Fool, who was a great juggler. Give me a perfect juggler who never drops anything, any time****, so I don't have to ruminate too long on the implausibility of the conceit, the quality and duration of the performance, or the logical implications of the HLF. Why are five objects held still in the hand so radically different from the same five objects thrown into the air with perfect precision, rhythm, and timing, with music playing? It's the art of the thing, right? Two wheels in motion greater than the sum of its parts, to be continued. 

*Or if instead of "facts" you prefer "current scientific view" I am good with that.

**There are certainly darker and less cheery human conceits, for example life is pointless, life is an illusion, we're all puppets controlled by pre-determined strings, and so on, but at this point I'm pretty convinced that most of the time these conceits are for show or effect, since getting up out of bed in the morning and carrying on is a concrete exhibition of a consequence which clearly does not follow from these conceits. Caveat emptor.

***Although, perhaps, science will one day achieve a level of consilience in which it becomes clear that all that we do and feel and are actually flow quite naturally from the HLF. If that is imaginable, then perhaps living as-if it were already clear would do no harm.

****On stilts, in my dream anyway.

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