Monday, February 11, 2013

The Sliding Puzzle

I had a friend a while back who, while visiting with us got a hold of an eight-piece sliding puzzle and attempted to solve it. The final result was supposed to be a three-dimensional lizard emerging from a pond, but my friend was not getting it to work and became more irritated and more humorous the more tries he made. Finally, in a fit of desperation, he took a butter knife to the edges and proceeded to pry the pieces out. Then he rearranged them correctly on the tabletop and re-installed them in the sliding frame in the proper order.

The only problem was that the frame was now loose at best, and broken in places at worst.

The more attempts that were made to solve the puzzle incorrectly (i.e., by violent prying at the edges with said butter knife) the looser the whole puzzle got. It would not be long before the whole thing would be broken and worthless.

Though funny, the episode says a lot about our fallen human nature. We are impatient, temperamental creatures, decidedly stupid on occasion. On a darker note, however, we are more often than not unwilling to take the time to stand back and understand something, before diving in and trying to "solve" it. This is, for example, the problem with much of modern philosophy, which concentrates on assumptions that are made before any real observation has be done. One can always construct a theory out of thin air and then force the facts to fit later. Humanity is often not interested in discerning something's true nature.

This inevitably leads to trouble, because in failing to understand something's true nature, we cannot properly assess the thing's value, and consequently very little meaningful interaction can take place between us and the thing in question. More often than not our interaction will result in damage and destruction, either of the thing or of us.

We do this with everything, it seems. Americans, I fear, are especially good at this sort of dense behavior. For instance, we look at the male and female sex of all different kinds of creatures, and we see them mate with each other, and we know that this process brings forth new life of the same species. Mankind has known this for thousands or even tens of thousands of years. When we are old enough to understand, we realize that we are creatures similar to the aforementioned observed animals, being male and female and possessing all the proper equipment to mate amongst ourselves. And yet we make the monumentally stupid leap of non-logic to the conclusion that sex between male and female humans has no connection or bearing on the creation of new life.

Or we look at government. Anyone with a semi-firm grasp of history knows that governments do not necessarily have the greatest track records when handed more and more centralized power. Imperial Rome crumbled under the weight of its own corruption and emperor-switching. Emperor Charlemagne's new Holy Roman Empire fell apart because it was built more on him and his charisma than on robust and widespread rule of law. The Soviet Union collapsed under the crushing pressure of unsustainable spending, repression to the breaking point of its subjects, the proven inefficiency of central planning, and the obliteration of the individual. And yet, parties on both sides of the American political spectrum will conclude that either centralized governance or centralized production and ownership is the key to solving all our ills.

Or look at guns and gun control. Or marriage. Or the concept of beauty in art. Or practically any other aspect of our lives. In every case, the loudest voices offering "solutions" to the challenges handed to us are also the ones that advocate tearing apart the frame of the puzzle in order to solve it without any observational work. And this approach has never worked. Not for very long, at least.

Our race is drowning in its own boneheaded sins. To refuse to understand the nature of the world for whatever reason is to doom oneself to incompatibility with that same world and the people in it. When burning fossil fuels for energy is all that we know or will accept, we will run out. When factory farming and mass pharmaceutical production is all that we will consider in those respective fields, we will continue to wonder why the modern man is becoming less and less healthy. When we accept that long hours of work in a factory is the only path forward to financial peace and happiness, we will wonder why we are burnt out and unfulfilled. When we rob from the wealthy to give "compassionately" to the poor, we wonder why both the wealthy and the poor no longer wish to work. When we "accidentally" conceive a child during an act of fornication or adultery and then proceed to have responsibility for it destroyed through abortion, we will wonder why the woman suffers psychological torment and physical ailments for the rest of her life. (And, in relation to that, we will wonder why men are such bums.)

We will wonder, and we will think about the problem after we have already screwed it up. We will suffer pain and regret and loneliness and hollowness because we did not try to understand the nature of the issue at hand, but only applied our own theory of operation to it and hoped like hell it would work. It is not a good way to live.

There is a way out, a way forward towards the light. Or, more accurately, there are two ways out. One is divine and the other is earthly. There is a facsimile of the divine solution floating around, and it is probably the one thrown in people's faces more, pitched to mankind without its proper context or background, used unfortunately as an "easy fix" type approach. It is catchy to be told that Jesus is the answer to all our problems and if we simply believe in Him then everything will be okay, and the hole in our lives will be filled. The real divine solution is much more involved and all encompassing, a labor of love and a transformation of life, but it must inform and work in tandem with the earthly solution to be effective. The earthly solution is this: to be aware. To open our eyes and our minds and to struggle to understand how the world actually works. To reason our way from honest premises to reasonable conclusions. To embrace our intellect, to think for ourselves, and to demand that the world do the same.

It is not a hopeless cause, getting to the root of things. It just takes a healthy dose of humility to admit, as Socrates once did, that we know nothing. We need to look long and hard at every issue in our lives to determine if we are solving the puzzle or breaking it.

Because unlike the plastic eight-piece sliding puzzle, our lives are fixable.

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