Arbitrariness and Meaning

Why drive on the right side of the road?  The left works for the Brits.  Why start question-words with wh- instead of k-, as does Sanskrit, Farsi, and certain dialects of Ancient Greek?  Why read left to right?  We could go right-to-left, like Hebrew and Arabic, or even top-to-bottom as is sometimes done with Chinese.  Why is i the square root of -1, when (-i)² also equals -1?  Why does a clock go clockwise, when making it go anti-clockwise would work just as well?

All of these choices are purely arbitrary.  The alternatives would have worked equally well.  But refusing to choose one between equivalent choices would have left confusion; it would have erased the possibility of meaning and cohesion.

Meaning starts from the meaningless; from de-cision, that is, cutting something away.

The paradox of “Buridan’s ass” is about a donkey that is faced with two equal succulent bales of hay, both the same distance away.  Does the donkey starve since there is no reason to choose one bale over the other?  Al-Ghazali similarly writes,

Suppose two similar dates in front of a man, who has a strong desire for them but who is unable to take them both. Surely he will take one of them, through a quality in him, the nature of which is to differentiate between two similar things.

So the rational rests on the irrational; because without this symmetry-breaking, nothing happens.

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Ethics and Development Work

In an Ethics class a while back, the question came up of whether it is better to go out and do development work, making the world a better place, or stand around being a philosophy professor, who might perhaps persuade a couple students to examine their lives and live better.

At the time, this presented a rather large moral dilemma to me. Now that I’ve left philosophy for Peace Corps, though, ironically I see less force to the conundrum.

First, let’s not pretend like people doing development work are making a huge difference in the world. We make small differences, and hope that they take root. They may not always. But we do not necessarily change the world any more over here than doing something else. Honestly, there’s not a whole lot I can do here until South Africa changes from within.

Second, one must keep in mind one’s own strengths. I was reading something by Brad Warner of Hardcore Zen fame. I forget the details and am having trouble locating the post right now (it might have been in one of his books, anyhow), but the point was that he had been doing a job that was regarded as being all nice and humanitarian and what-not. And stunk at it, probably making problems for people instead of solving them. So instead he went and made monster movies; a “lesser” job, but if he could work his values into something he actually could throw himself into, this was better than forcing himself to do the “right thing” and doing it poorly. Being a half-arsed teacher out here isn’t helping anyone and might harden communities against making the changes they need.

Third, there are all sorts of ways to be effective. Seneca, tutor to the Roman emperor Nero, was asked why he didn’t spend more time in the public life doing something. He answered that his writings would last far longer than the political actions of his day. Considering that I read that from him almost 2000 years later, and yet there is no more Roman Empire, Seneca seems to be on to something. We need some people helping raise the standards of humanity around the world. We also need some people in scholarship to remember our past, some in more “normal” jobs keeping things running, and creative sorts showing us visions of what life could be like. If everyone were to become a PC volunteer, or otherwise go and give up their lives to “be good people,” society would crumble.

Sometimes, doing the right thing might be enjoying yourself where you are.