Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The counterfactual thinking trap: what if civilization wasn't?

I had just finished cooking a stellar batch of sweet potato fries to use as a vehicle for testing my latest attempt at homemade ketchup. I walked the pot of still smoking-hot oil carefully down the back steps and out to the compost pile. I read somewhere that cooking oil shouldn’t be thrown into the compost because it can make the composting process less efficient by sealing off areas of the pile from air and water exposure.

Fuck efficiency.

I have two side-by-side four foot square “compost corrals” made by alternately stacking 4x4 pieces of heavy-duty oak pallet wood that my son-in-law brought home from a construction site. When the first one fills up, the contents are shoveled into the second, where they sit until the following spring when they are spread on the garden. It was late summer, the second corral had been sitting full for a couple months already and the first had a sizable start with yard debris from the last storm and the usual surfeit of kitchen scraps forming an amorphous damp mound in the center.

I emptied the pot directly above the kitchen scrap mound and witnessed a holocaust beyond all reckoning. The hot oil instantly deep-fried the debris at the top of the pile, releasing a violent waft of steam accompanied by a satisfying sizzling sound. I was expecting that. But what I hadn’t anticipated was the number of living creatures that came pouring out from the moist earthy depths—a desperate and screaming mass of life, each wriggling, crawling, buzzing part expending every drop of itself in an attempt to escape an oily incineration.

Compost is decayed organic matter. And a compost pile is a pile of organic matter in varying stages of decay. But, a compost pile is also a vibrant local ecosystem that includes all manner of invertebrate animal life, and in a moment of thoughtlessness I had committed an atrocity, the local effects of which will resonate for days.

My initial surprise quickly turned to shocked remorse, and then to anger directed at my own lack of forethought. I should have known.

“I should have known” is a form of counterfactual thinking. It assumes that the past could have happened differently than it did, that there are alternative courses for events that have already transpired—or at least that there were viable alternative courses open at the time. Counterfactual thinking is clearly an adaptive human capacity. To re-envision the past is in some sense to prepare for the future. By imagining alternative outcomes for past events, we enhance our ability to act should a similar situation arise later on. The problem comes when we treat the alternatives, clearly visible in hindsight, as if they were actual possibilities within the unique context of the passing moment. This particular problem with counterfactuals has several names, regret and recrimination being the most common.

Civilization didn’t have to happen. After 100,000 generations of human experience, civilization intruded unexpectedly, a toxic anomaly. That it happened when it did, that it took the historical forms that it did, that you and I find ourselves in the present moment, wrapped in its cancerous embrace—all of this might not have been. But it did. And it is. And the past can’t be undone. We must live with the past as it ingratiates itself on the present. There is no choice.

But the future always and forever remains an open sea of possibility.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Civilized futility

Sisyphus was a deceitful and murderous Corinthian king in Greek mythology forced to spend all eternity in grueling and futile labor pushing a boulder over and over again up a steep hill only to have it roll away from him just before he gets to the top. The number and nature of Sisyphus’ evil deeds makes it difficult to feel sympathy for him. But his punishment is not meant as restitution for the nasty treatment of his fellow mortals. There are many versions of the particular chain of events leading to Sisyphus’ torturous repetitive predicament, but in each case he is being punished for more-or-less successful attempts to outsmart the gods. In one version of the tale, Sisyphus’ sentence was devised by Zeus specifically to demonstrate his own godly cleverness and send the message that Sisyphus, the wisest of human tricksters, wasn’t so smart after all.

Mythological tales are not necessarily supposed to make logical sense, but there is something about Sisyphus’ afterlife activity that doesn’t make any sense at all. Why does he keep at it? What is it that compels him to continue to push the rock? Why doesn’t he simply refuse to go on, sit down with his back against the hill, prop his feet up on top of his boulder, and give the gods the extended middle finger? I mean, really, he’s already dead. What more can they do to him? Does he fear an even worse punishment if he refuses? Surely if there was a worse punishment, Zeus would have thought of it.

Of course, they’re gods. They can conceivably deprive him of all choice in the matter and make his limbs move of their own accord. But if so, then Sisyphus is no longer purposefully engaged, and his actions lose their futility. Once his free choice has been usurped he is just along for the ride and the most punishing feature of his punishment has been rendered inert. It would make no difference whether he rolls an uncooperative rock up a hill or hauls heavy sacks of dirt—or works in a Nike shoe factory. The thing that makes the boulder punishment different from simple tedious labor, the thing that makes it uniquely punishing, is that he is intentionally slaving toward a goal that he continually almost but not quite achieves.

The writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, suggested that there might be more to Sisyphus’ circumstances than meets the eye. The tale is always told with an emphasis on the upward leg of Sisyphus’ hillside round trip. But the climb up is only half the journey. The other half is spent traveling burden free, and one might imagine in a leisurely fashion, downhill. In this, Sisyphus’ fate is not so different from normal civilized life: struggle toward largely futile goals interspersed with periods of respite. Could it be that Sisyphus managed to outsmart the gods yet again?

But let’s return to the idea of futility, to the notion that there is something distinctly different about purposeful effort directed at an unachievable goal as opposed to forced labor, and to the question of what keeps Sisyphus—and you and me—from simply setting the rock aside and refusing to continue.