The Lord Giveth, and the Lord Taketh Away: Why a Life Without Limits Probably Isn’t Alive.

The other day I was talking to a friend of mine — a doctor — and she commented that cancer is when part of you forgets to die. I think it’s weird that this post has begun with a comment on death: I feel like most of my pieces get around to death at some point.

When I opened the text editor to start this piece I was 100% certain that this piece would not be about death. I guess that’s just not my karma, guys.

More thoughts on cancer: if things don’t die, then nothing works. That sounds horrifically vague. I guess what I mean is that nothing in life can be completely free. Limitation seems like it might be a necessary condition for existence.

I once had a chat with one of my philosophy professors and we were talking about creativity. We ended up coming onto the idea that only God could create without constraint or from nothing not because God is the only being that isn’t constrained, but because you would need omniscience or at least an infinitely creative mind to create without something to start with. Most change is incremental.

If you had Godlike power, but not a Godlike mind, you would probably just use it to get a really hot partner and explode all your enemies and do all sorts of other really silly and small-minded things. You probably wouldn’t be able to come up with anything particularly interesting, at least at first. If you instantiated any really interesting states of affairs, then I think it’s likely that you’d have done it by varying reality a little bit in small ways until you could build on what you’d done before. I don’t think you could imagine anything really different.

You can get a sense for this by examining fantasy literature: it mostly derives from the same sort of mythological tropes we’ve had around in human culture for a long time.

The point I’m about to make is somewhat contentious, but I’m about to make it anyway: evolution doesn’t happen all at once, it happens at least gradually, and at most in a series of ‘stops and spurts’. If so, then creation also functions only in a limited way.

Most complex or interesting systems don’t seem to work without both a ‘constraint’ and a ‘push’, or at least the most interesting systems don’t seem to. Certainly not most creative systems. I guess by creative systems, I mean something that yields an interesting, unexpected, or novel product. Most systems that iterate but never produce failure don’t seem very interesting to me. For the most part they seem like they just produce slightly more efficient types of chmess.

For a concrete example, most of the advances that have driven market growth in technology recently seem singularly boring. For the most part, phones have just gotten bigger and shinier, with nicer screens. There haven’t really been any interesting developments in design, instead it seems like people are just saying “more of what’s good please.” In some cases, I’m not even convinced that more of what’s good is good. Garbage design seems like it might be an emergent property.

Obviously, meaningful innovation in tech is really really hard, and if it wasn’t then it would happen all the time. I don’t want to pretend I could make a meaningful contribution to that, because I probably couldn’t. This is not my area of expertise at all. But it seems like meaningful change always comes from a perfect balance of limitation and opportunity.

Maybe I just think that because I’m trying to rationalize my own sloppy-on-the-one-hand/‘intuitive’-on-the-other style of living and thinking, and I want to build a world view in which regular failure is a virtue to justify that. On the other hand, it does seem like there is something to this type of view, and I’m certainly not the first person to try and articulate it.

I like the cliché “nothing ventured, nothing earned.” I also like cliches like “what doesn’t kill me can only serve to make me stronger.” That second one is from Nietzsche, and I do really like Nietzsche. I also really like the concept of anti-fragility, and the concept of opponent processing.

I guess I can see the outline of a world-view where antagonism is best welcomed. I read a really fascinating blog post about living your life on hard-mode, which I’d encourage you to read. It didn’t come with a moral, but the basic jist was that there is something essentially valuable in terms of what is earned by taking the difficult way over the easy way.

This seems to me to go beyond platitudes about character building. It seems like there are states of affairs that can only be created and maintained through constraint and difficulty.

It seems like we’re usually into describing the arc of someone’s life in terms of what they did, in terms of what they could have done. It’s interesting when someone does something, because it means it was possible for them.

It’s amazing when a sportsman hits a ridiculous statistic not because he hit it — that might have been mere chance — but because he could have hit it. What a super-hero he must have been born to be able to hit it! What a man! To be the recipient of that numerical incident.

But it doesn’t seem like we focus enough on the beauty of limitation. In life, some of the most sympathetic characters are those who are limited and sympathetically human. Humans are each just one thing, not everything. We’re not even most things. Most of us are a vanishingly small number of things! How beautiful is that?

You carve a sculpture by cutting away at it.

At a certain point, you can start to define yourself by what you chose not to be, or what you could never have been. There is comfort there — not comfort of mediocrity, I don’t think that’s valuable; but there’s definitely comfort in humility.

I feel old, which is silly, because I’m definitely young by anyone’s reckoning. But I’m not a teenager any more, and I’ve been thinking about what it will mean to let some possible trajectories for my life be pruned from the proverbial decision tree. I think pruning is an unavoidable process in maturation. It certainly is in the maturation of your neurobiology.

I think maturity might be the decision to let some dreams die. Not because they’re unworkable, or because they’re unrealistic, but because to live is to live within limits, and that’s the point.

Maybe that’s why marriage is traditionally considered the gateway to adulthood. That is, after all, when you choose to be with one person specifically, and not with anyone else even in the abstract.

I’ve often thought: if God could have created anything, why did he create this? It seems awfully ugly. ‘He probably created it because he was bored of perfect infinity’ is how I usually respond.

If you’re an atheist, you might not like that question, so we can just ask ‘why is there anything other than nothing?’ I certainly cannot answer that question with certainty. I’ll hedge my bets like I did in the theological version: ‘probably because there was some space for it.’

Is form emptiness? Is emptiness form?

Let me paraphrase with some variance to fit my purposes: In the Meno, when Socrates was asked to discuss the nature of form, he meant that it was the limit of colour. When asked to define colour, he said that it was the efflux of form.

Limit and flow seem to fit into each other. They cycle each other. They form a whirlpool like water does as it drains from the bath. You could say that was one reading for the symbol of yin and yang.

I think that’s why the story of Christ is so fascinating. What if God was just a dude? That would be, all things considered, pretty far out. Could you imagine? Such a combination of the possible and the impossible?

3 thoughts on “The Lord Giveth, and the Lord Taketh Away: Why a Life Without Limits Probably Isn’t Alive.”

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