Holding two contradictory ideas in your head is a useful trick for humans, and it can help explain some of our behavior as polypsychic creatures. That is, our minds and personalities are complicated enough to be considered a collection of different parts, competing and collaborating with one another to put up this pretense of a unified person to the world.

Lateralization of brain function and lobotomy case studies already show biological evidence that a single human being can already be considered two interacting brain halves. So it is not a far jump to consider that any sufficiently complex system, with many independent yet communicating parts, can become inconsistent. In fact, for any interesting complex system, it would be unlikely and strange if it remained completely consistent over time, especially since we know inputs from the outside world can be random and imperfectly communicated.

For example, I watch a lot of (Internet) television and read a lot of books, which is influenced by what my friends recommend. I believe that traveling the world is great way to gain a wider perspective on my life, learn about different cultures, and keep in touch with these friends. However, I also believe that modern air travel is unsustainable, outputting huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. So what do I do?

Well, I mostly fly anyway and then feel guilty about it, maybe purchase some bullshit carbon offsets, maybe catch a matinee of cap and trade kabuki theater (thanks to Caitlin for this link). Another way is to reconcile the contradiction on a more indirect level, like Al Gore, and consider some air travel necessary to fight global warming. The world would be a much poorer place without the exchange of people and ideas, and if I am flying to Haiti to do disaster relief work, the benefits of my travel might outweigh the downsides. And how are we supposed to reach international agreement on carbon limits without flying our national leaders to Copenhagen? How will we get grassroots support for emission reduction unless the former Vice President works out of a sprawling palatial home, wins a Nobel Peace Prize, and flies around evangelizing his books and Powerpoint presentation? We would be fools not to allow these exceptions to the rule.

Well, this reconciliation may work for Gore, but I don’t find it particularly satisfying. I could indirect one more step, pop one more frame off the stack, and redesign my life to slowly circumnavigate the globe using only pre-industrial means. If both travel and reducing carbon emissions were truly important to me, then there is a way to make them consistent with each other. Like most paradoxes, the contradiction disappears from a wider perspective. Like going back in time to kill your grandfather. It was will being have turned out that you are actually Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys. (This is analogous to the Church of the Larger Hilbert Space, a view of quantum information that any “spooky” “waveform-collapsing” is actually non-spooky and non-collapsing in some larger state which contains you and the measurement). In some context, crossing the globe and saving polar bears is completely consistent.

It just happens to not be the context where I maintain a stable residence in Seattle and complete a Ph.D. program in computer science. I can’t have it all, not at once anyway. But by maintaining this contradiction in my mind, I will curb my excessive airplane hopping until such time as I can become a nomadic engineer-wanderer. By deferring a complete consistency check, I can accomplish more of my goals overall. Or I can decide to have fewer goals, and maybe travel isn’t that important after all. Although it is impossible for human beings to be completely consistent about anything, it is very human to learn by resolving or reframing contradictions.


~ by Paul Pham on 14 March 2010.

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