Monthly Archives: February 2009

The truth and fingerprints

Inside all things, if you look hard enough, you’ll find a unique code.  It might be a genetic code.  It might be the traces of carbon-14 in tiny plant spores embedded in the rocks at the bottom of an ancient lake.  The layered patterns of sediment that tell you this could only be the Grand Canyon, for no other place on Earth has this precise pattern.  Or the tips of your own fingers.  Like zebra stripes and leopard spots, our fingerprints are indistinguishable from a distance but unique up close.  There’s something elegant and utterly beautiful in all this.

Fingerprints, of whatever kind, help us find out things that are true.  Fingerprints help us identify who committed a crime.  Fingerprints can become keys that open doors to secure places, protecting those spaces from harm or wrong-doing.  DNA fingerprints help us know who really fathered a child, or where our ancestors lived.  Fingerprints help us know things we couldn’t otherwise know.  Fingerprints are hard to erase without deformation.  Fingerprints keep us honest.

But that’s not all.  As long as we have fingerprints, we know we’re alive.  Whether DNA, carbon-14, or the tips of our fingers, fingerprints are very high-level expressions of order, and rocket scientists will tell you that order is intimately connected to life.

Here’s what they mean by order:  fingerprints carry information that can only be in one place.  This is the epitome of order.  Fingerprints tell you what to count on, so that nothing is unexpected and everything is predictable.  It’s the way mom wanted your room to be:  everything in its own place.  The opposite of order is randomness.  In a random world, there are no patterns, nothing you can recognize, and nothing you can count on.  Everything is new, everywhere you turn.  Memory ceases to be useful in a random world, and we’re all Leonard Shelby.

Stepping down from fingerprints, there are many other forms of order, which can occur in multiple places – making them a little more random than fingerprints, but somewhat orderly, nonetheless.  For example:  the behavior of electrons along copper wires or in magnets.  Wallpaper.  Or the herd-like behavior of people, who at the social level are every bit as predictable as they are “unique” at the individual level.

This is where individuality and order begin to clash, because they’re not supposed to be related to each other.  Fingerprints = individuality.  Fingerprints = order.  Therefore, individuality = order.  How can that be?  Individuality is the opposite of order, right?  Back to Leonard Shelby:  in complete randomness, everything and everyone is different but totally lifeless.  Recognition is meaningless, knowledge is impossible, and therefore individuality is impossible.  What we call “individuality” must be a symptom of order, for without order nothing could exist.  Individuality, as an experience, must be somewhere between the expression of complete uniqueness (a fingerprint seen up close) and a kind of order that says “this is a pattern” (fingerprints seen from a distance).  People are like wallpaper.

The trouble is that order is everywhere on the decline, and this has life-threatening possibilities.  Orderly things are signs that the universe hasn’t exhausted the energy that makes non-randomness (e.g. life or fingerprints) possible.  Orderly things are not always “alive” by our definition, but they make life possible if we can tap their energy.  Atoms, for example, are orderly things that contain a lot of energy.  Try splitting one (but don’t do it at home).  Order = energy.  And energy = life.  Without energy there would be no life.  Living things are, by definition, orderly and full of energy, but they get their energy by consuming it from somewhere.  The laws of rocket science tell us that this is a losing game:  energy can only ever be spent and never really recovered or recreated.  This is what the rocket scientists call entropy.

So here’s the paradox:  life stands in contrast to entropy.  Life takes and spends energy, and spending energy only increases the entropy of the world.  Life is the struggle against entropy, but no matter how you cut it, the truth about life is that living can only contribute to entropy.  To live is the act of dimming the possibility of life in the future.  It’s an awful, yet beautiful, burden to live with.

The beauty of uniqueness – of the self, of being alive, captured in the fingerprint as the epitome of order and therefore the fullest expression of living being – is itself an act of destruction.  Preserved, it is not life.  Moving and living, it only contributes to our mutual undoing, but it is all we really have.  As Keats reminded us:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

1 Comment

Filed under beauty, entropy, John Keats, Leonard Shelby, order

The truth and rocket science

The truth isn’t rocket science.  Of course that doesn’t stop rocket scientists from claiming it is.  They tell us that from Galileo and Bacon on down the truth is the only thing they’ve ever been after.  But rocket science isn’t always about truth, nor is truth in any way essentially scientific.  There are times when the truth seems to be much easier than rocket science:  we hold these truths to be self-evident.  Then there are times when the truth is much harder than rocket science.  Let’s start on the easier side.

It doesn’t take much training to stand on a street corner, open a book, and start spouting off some kind of truth.  You don’t need a mentor, though some folks have them, nor do you need to do any specific study.  Can you talk loud?  That’s about all it took in the good old days.  With the internet and all that, you don’t even have to speak or go outside.  The barriers to entry for truth are so absurdly low that some people even think this accounts for the amount of falsehood out there, though this isn’t necessarily true, either.

Rocket science, by contrast, requires years of study at the feet of older rocket scientists and mathematicians, whose slave-driving exploitation of younger rocket scientists weeds out the weaklings and ensures that the world of rocket science is populated only by those who really can do rocket science.  And when you think of all the things we do with rockets – from the first little vinegar-and-baking-soda rocket you made as a kid to Neil Armstrong – you’d have to say that rocket scientists know what they’re talking about.  Then again, next time the world goes aflame in a nuclear holocaust, thank the rocket scientists.

Which brings us back to barriers to entry, for there are those who argue that low barriers to entry for the truth are just what the world needs.  A few years after Jefferson wrote, “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” he wrote freedom of expression into the first amendment to the Constitution, and the Supreme Court has been arguing over it ever since.  In the mid-1800s, the British political theorist, economist, and sometimes politician John Stuart Mill, wrote a whole book to clarify the matter, On Liberty.  Mill argued that only the free exchange of all ideas would result in “the clear perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”  Sounds like quantum mechanics.

And like quantum mechanics, this seems to work some of the time – for example, when a few hundred years of thinking about, practicing, and debating slavery wound up resulting in the finding that it was wrong.  Or the time it took to for the marketplace of ideas to tilt toward the notion that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, though that information was available all along.

Here’s where low barriers to entry for the truth make it a lot harder than rocket science.  You can look for the truth, but don’t count on the truth to get you to the dance on time.  One of the few things you can just about guarantee when it comes to the truth is that it’ll be too late for someone out there.

The hard part about truth and rocket science is this:  knowing things that are true is no assurance of safety, survival, happiness, or well-being.  We really can’t know where truth or science will get us until we come to the end of our ride.  Along the way we might ride high and mighty for a long time, or we might live the life of Job.

My guess is that the closer you are to Job, the better off you are, unless and until you cross over that line where Job becomes a disgruntled postal worker.  Being Job is harder than rocket science, though the payoff is, arguably, much greater if you can do Job well, as Job himself found out once he realized that some things were out of his control and he would never know the cause or reason why.  The vanity of truth, which is what all good rocket scientists aspire to, won’t do anyone much good on its own.

Credit:  Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the liberty of thought and discussion,” about five or six pages in, though Mill himself doesn’t seem to credit Bacon and Galileo.

Leave a comment

Filed under freedom, Job, John Stuart Mill, vanity