The Problem of Freedom

The problem with freedom is that freedom contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

Our liberal democracies are a wonderful place to live. We have freedom of speech, of assembly, of movement. Unfortunately this allows, for instance, terrorist to successfully strike at the core of those freedoms.

How leaders and the populace respond to acts of hatred and terrorism is the true measure of a democracy, I think. In which direction do we head? Do we shuffle off into the twilight of a police state, or do we demand more freedom and more democracy?

The narrative aspects of what you say and what I hear.

You say something. I hear something.

Your brain tells you that you said something and tells you what you said.

My brain tells me that you said something and tells me what you said.

If there’s some confusion there, we try to reconstruct what you actually said vs what I actually heard.

There are three realities at play here. Your brain’s story of what it said. My brain’s story of what I heard. Our reconstruction of what was said. There is an objective truth at play, but without outside verification (a recording device, for instance), that objective truth might as well not exist. It’s certainly not worth arguing about.

There’s no real guarantee that you said what you think you said, or that I heard what I think I heard, or that our reconstruction of the events ex post facto matches what was actually said. But our reconstruction of the event allows us to collapse your interpretation with my interpretation and create a shared narrative.

When I was younger it was very important to me that we arrive at the raw facts, that we experience objective reality, that we discover if you really said what you think you said, or if I really heard what I thought I heard. Sometimes I still slip into that vein of thinking.

However it seems to me now that our shared narrative is the more important and less rancorous landing place: Whether or not we construct objective reality is less important than whether we derive meaning from a shared event.

New portmanteau alert: “Wikithumper”

I’ve created a new term for those assclown admins and powerusers on Wikipedia who nominate everything (except articles about obscure manga characters and Star Trek trivia) for deletion under the rubric that it’s not notable:

A Wikithumper or, if you will, Wiki-thumper is one of those editors on Wikipedia who combine all the most wonderful aspects of fundamentalism with the even more wonderful aspects of Wikipedia’s notability guidelines. They are the ones who nominate your page for deletion, who revert your edits, who claim that a certain page is “too heavy” and then when you split up the page nominate your new entry for deletion.

They are also the reason very few people like to edit Wikipedia anymore.

You are so small.

Let’s assume you exist. Let’s not talk about holographic projections of the universe or brains in a bottle. Let’s just assume that you are you, and that you exist.

You are very small. In every conceivable way. Tiny beyond imagination.

But let’s try to imagine anyway.

You exist on a planet. This planet is very large, at least compared to you. It’s some 8.5 × 10^22 more massive than you, give or take a few kilos.

This planet obits around a rather middling star which we call the Sun. The Sun is 334,000 times the mass of the Earth.

This Sun in the centre of a vast solar system. The Oort cloud of comets has an estimated radius of 7.5 x 10^12 kilometers!

Beyond the Oort cloud are other solar systems, the closest of which is so inaccessibly far away that the distances are literally inconceivable. The length of time it would reasonably take to get there beggars the imagination.

And all of this is part of a galaxy we call the Milky Way. I can hardly begin to describe how large this galaxy truly is, but let me try: It’s so wide that we have to completely abandon kilometers, a measure we’re very familiar with, and move on to lightyears, and the on to kilo-lightyears (or thousands of light years). And even then, the Milky Way is somewhere around 120 kilo-lightyears across!

The Milky Way isn’t even very large. It’s a middling to small galaxy. But it exists in what we call the Observable Universe (simply, the universe that we can see because light has had time to travel to earth), a thing of such great size that there are no words to describe it. The numbers we use to put a size to it are simply so massive in so many ways that we will never be able to wrap out tiny minds around it. Let’s just say that the observable universe is 93 BILLION light years across.

You get the picture. To scale, you’re not just like the sand on a beach. You’re like quark of the electron of the atom of the molecule of the sand on the beach.

Still, as far as we know, you’re unique. You live, breath, die. You are special in that way. You live on a special place. We have sifted through the universe for many years not and not found anything like you. You are biological. Your body responds to stress by making itself better. The composition of your body changes as you shift between environments. You adapt. You are completely unlike any other matter in the universe.

You are the only type of matter that thinks, “How small am I?” You are perhaps the only type of matter that thinks at all.

But you’re not only small in size. You’re not just small in relation to the amount of space you take up. You’re also small in time. You’re small in relation to all the things that have happened.

Take the history of the universe. Some people think it’s only been around 10,000 years or so, but I think that’s a foolish humanistic reaction to the threat of near-infinity. The universe certainly appears very old. So let’s assume that it is.

In all the history of the universe, from what we call the Big Bang (the current scientific consensus regarding the origin of the physical universe) till now, you occupy a vanishingly small frame. Barely a blink of the eye, if that.

Cut out the slices of history that were never recorded. Cut out everything that happened without life existing on earth. Even then you have billions upon billions of years!

Cut out all the time that humans haven’t existed. You’re down to a mere 200,000 years. Yet still, you are relatively insignificant.

Cut out anything that hasn’t been recorded. Cut out everything before the Epic of Gilgamesh or something like it. You’re down to 5000 years. And STILL, you’re tiny.

Cut out anything that hasn’t happened in your lifetime, and yet there are 6 billion others to whom that same sentence could apply.

Imagine you have died. How long will they remember you? I imagine you will be remembered well for 20 years, and then fade away 100 years after that. Two generations after you death, you will most likely not be remembered at all. Not only will you not be remembered, but no-one will care that you’re not remembered. The things you did with your life, who you married, what you did as a job, where you went on holiday… these things might mean something to someone in the future. Someone or maybe many people will be affected by what you did. But no-one will know your name.

You are tiny. Your life is short. The memory of your time on earth fades quickly. Everything you do will simply… go away. So there it is. You are so small.

How does that make you feel?