“Dude. You really are pathetic.”
“Watch yourself, Erik. I’ll kick your ass.”
“What are ya gonna do? Run me down?”
“You better sleep lightly.”
“Why should I? It’s not like I won’t hear you coming!”
The other day the license plates finally arrived for my Subaru. My new car, that now sits in our driveway under the tree where all the magpies sit and shriek and shit all morning all over my new car. Oregon license plates. The conversion is complete. I must say, Oregon has some of the most beautiful license plates in the country, pure and simple with a lone pine tree and purple mountains. For a price, Oregon will also issue you a license plate that celebrates one of the cornerstones of our western existence. Cultural Heritage features a covered wagon getting shot up and burned by Indians. Crater Lake features deep blue pond surrounded on all sides by traffic jams. Trout features, well, trout.
What I don’t get is how they could get their basic plate so right and go so horribly awry on the special guys. They’re ugly, they’re cluttered and the license digits simply add to the visual carnage. Why the heck would someone want to pay more to taint their fine automobile with this crap?
Whatever. I got the cool plate, and I got cool letterz and numberz, too. 726. My old dialing prefix for UMD, and one still used for all professors and other on-campus contacts. BBS. Bulletin Board Service. Long live geeks! Long live the summer of ’95, which I spent sitting in a chilly basement in front of my 436 DX/33 with eight megs of RAM. Tethered to my Zoom 2400 modem I siphoned an ASCII social existence from a BBS known as PC MegaMall. I remember fragments. Danathan. iNSANiTY. Banger. Wheelie. Aowyn. Puppy. I first met the entire crew in person at the Mall of America, where we saw a stupid movie about France. I got my ass kicked in Doom by Harlequin. Liz had an iguana. I threw my own GT where Banger twisted his ankle on my trampoline.
Wheelie was the PC MegaMall Sysop, and on one rainy day I had my father drive me to the Perkins parking lot down the street so I could fork over some cash and upgrade my user level to SuperShopper. The whole thing felt like a drug deal, but it was necessary because my available minutes were waning and my social life was in jeopardy. Another time Dan and I rode our bikes all the way from Golden Valley to Brooklyn Center for a bunch of girls, an activity which over the coming weeks turned into a junior high drama wrought with love and fights and broken hearts.
It’s weird, the fuss and fight we put up to make our lives flow in a certain direction, and where they actually travel. Since breaking my leg I feel like I have surrendered that control for a moment and am being asked to casually observe my life from the outside. I feel like I’m in a cheesy teen movie, watching a cute and obvious plot weave itself into existence. There are all sorts of loose threads that perchance will find themselves resolved in the coming weeks, and I’m excited to see how this all is going to pan out.
As I have said before I am not a fatalist. I do not believe that there is an invisible force that governs the direction of human life. At the same time, I believe that in highly complex systems there will always be forces at work that are very difficult to account for, even less predict. Even the attempt to detect a force is a force itself that necessarily has an effect on the product of the system (the essence of the Uncertainty Principle). The degree of one tiny force may be minimal, but if you are unable to realize a few million tiny forces the system becomes wholly unpredictable.
Chaos is not the absence of order so much as it is an absence of predictability in a highly complex system (we’re talking Butterfly Effect, here). Every cause has an effect, every effect has a cause, but we haven’t necessarily cornered the market on every cause and its inevitable effect. You won’t hear me say that we have absolute control over the outcome of our lives, because when we make a choice we can’t possibly know every cause that brought us to that point, and every effect that would result from a particular decision. At the same time, it is obvious that free-will is an extremely strong force in determining the direction of one’s life, whether we have a perfect understanding of our place in the universe or not.
A distinction is necessary, I believe, between true autonomy (and true determinism) and functional autonomy (and functional determinism). In a perfectly controlled environment we could test for the absolute truths of autonomy and determinism; the exact point where one finally gives way to the next. As David Hume discovered, however, there can be a large difference between the truths we receive from logic, and the truths we can actually apply to our lives. Too many philosophers suffer in that they never manage the connection between the white room of pure philosophical thought and the tangled mess of life. Functional autonomy is the clumsy and imperfect definition of free-will that, while not logically rigorous, is accurate enough to apply to our lives without exhaustion and convolution.
Functional definitions of determinism, fatalism, free-will and autonomy are what we starve for. However, the only intellectually honest way to arrive at a correct functional definition is to first slog through the establishment of true definitions. There is no fair shortcut.
So kids, if you want to participate, here’s what to do. Break your leg and then ask yourself the following questions:
Does determinism exist? Does autonomy exist? If so, where is the line between the two?