Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The return of the eternal return of the...

In yesterday's post about "The Road Not Taken," the first commenter, "anonymous," related the poem to the second-guessing of political and military decisions.

Anonymous writes:

Frost's poem reminds me once again why I get so annoyed with those who demand that President Bush acknowledge and apologize for mistakes made in Iraq. How can he or we know if more troops would have made a difference, or perhaps fewer troops. How can we know if different plans would be better or worse.

I keep imagining Bush critics, when facing a major decision, running first down one road one hundred yards and then running back to go three hundred yards down the other. Finally, exhausted, they collapse at the Y with nothing accomplished.

World leaders have to make decisions; the image of being stuck at the fork in the road and collapsing, exhausted, doesn't inspire confidence. And yet, once decisions are made, we have to at least try to evaluate them in order to learn from them. But the task is complicated, not just by political partisanship (on both sides), but by the difficulty of ever knowing what the proposed alternative actions might have led to instead.

Interestingly enough, in the Kundera novel I quoted in that Frost post--The Unbearable Lightness of Being--Kundera himself relates the idea of the non-repeatability of human life to the process of political and national decision-making. He writes:

Several days later, [Tomas] was struck by another thought, which I record here as an addendum to the preceding chapter: Somewhere out in space there was a planet where all people would be born again. They would be fully aware of the the life they had spent on earth and of all the experience they had amassed here.

And perhaps there was still another planet, where we would all be born a third time with the experience of our first two lives,

And perhaps there were yet more and more planets, where mankind would be born one degree (one life) more mature.

That was Tomas's version of eternal return.

Of course we are here on earth (planet number one, the planet of inexperience) can only fabricate vague fantasies of what will happen to man on those other planets. Will he be wiser? Is maturity within man's power? Can he attain it through repitition?

Only from the perspective of such a utopia is it possible to use the concepts of pessimism and optimism with full justification: an optimist is someone who thinks that on planet number five the history of mankind will be less bloody. A pessimist is one who thinks otherwise.

Or, to look at it from the perspective of a moviegoer: the optimist enjoys "Groundhog Day" (preferably, over and over); the pessimist prefers "Peggy Sue Got Married."

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (made into a movie that I, for one, considered unbearable, especially compared to the book that inspired it) was written in 1984, when Kundera's native Czechslovakia was still under Soviet domination. Kundera could not see past the curve in the road to a future that was not even so very distant; he did not imagine that a Communist collapse was imminent (of course, in that lack of foresight, he had plenty of company).

Concerning decision-making in Czech history, Kundera wrote:

There is only one history of the Czechs. One day it will come to an end, as surely as Tomas's life, never to be repeated.

In 1618, the Czech estates took courage and vented their ire on the emperor reigning in Vienna by pitching two of his high officials out of a window in the Prague Castle. Their defiance led to the Thirty Years War, which in turn led to the almost complete destruction of the Czech nation. Should the Czechs have shown more caution than courage? The answer may seem simple; it is not.

Three hundred and twenty years later, after the Munich Conference of 1938, the entire world decided to sacrifice the Czech's country to Hitler. Should the Czechs have tried to stand up to a power eight times their size? In countrast to 1618, they opted for caution. Their capitulation led to the Second World War, which in turn led to the forfeit of their nation's freedom for many decades or even centuries. What should they have done?

If Czech history could be repeated, we should of course find it desirable to check the other possibility each time and compare the results. Without such an experiment, all considerations of this kind remain a game of hypotheses...

The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of all of Europe. The history of the Czechs and of Europe are a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind's fateful inexperience.

We remain trapped in "mankind's fateful inexperience," I'm afraid. Human life and history contain too much complexity, too many unpredictabilities and uncertainties, for us to ever really know whether the best decision was made. We can only try to apply the lessons of the past, knowing full well that we can never learn them quite well enough.


At 12:26 AM, January 04, 2006, Blogger total said...

To steal from Yogi Berra's "When you get to a fork in the road, take it." I felt compelled to relate an experience.

In professional wargaming simulations and the like, one of the lessons that's stuck with me quite a bit is that frontal assaults, headlong in to the guns, hurt. They Hurt. Hurt. A. Lot. A. Whole. Lot.

But there are only two things that hurt worse.

One is getting stuck halfway through.

The other (and it hurts a lot more than even that) is trying to back out of a headlong charge in to the guns.

Very much of Ben Franklin meets Sun Tzu, in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound-wise.

At 8:40 AM, January 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All these elements to Frost's poem are interesting, and I can see them. Now. Unfortunately I have a near-loathing for poetry that makes it difficult to read much in the genre.

Perhaps it's simply that I bloody well expect a poem to rhyme! And so I rarely read a poem willingly. Why is it so hard for the 'modern' poet to rhyme?


I did use Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" in an early web site I created - back when I had all the time in the world! LOL

I have read a few poems that I've enjoyed, but most remain beyond my capacity to enjoy.

At 11:51 PM, January 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that we can never learn life's lessons well enough. I just think it sometimes takes multiple trials to get the complicated stuff right.

The vexing thing is that life's mistakes repeat *until* their lesson is learned. At which point you don't get closure but a new lesson.

At 3:53 AM, January 06, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

"Of course we are here on earth (planet number one, the planet of inexperience) can only fabricate vague fantasies of what will happen to man on those other planets. Will he be wiser? Is maturity within man's power? Can he attain it through repitition?"

Seems he would have done better to frame it in quantum mechanical terms and the Many Worlds Theory. Even Chaos Theory and Logic would accurately convey the sense of the "what if" scenario. Even if he does not, it is how I look at things.

"he did not imagine that a Communist collapse was imminent (of course, in that lack of foresight, he had plenty of company)."

It seems to me that part of the conclusion of Communism had to do with the lack of applicable self-fullfilling prophecy. Some things in reality don't succede, regardless of intentions perpetrated through Chaos Theory. They just don't. To believe or to know that Communism would ultimately fail, would not ultimately have changed the end results. Because even with half of the world believing in Communism, it didn't make it work. So disbelieving in it would not have made it stop working. At least not by the vast majority of people in East Europe. WWIII while not being a hot nuclear war, it was certainly a cold econo-war. In the sense that the author Meyers wrote about. A competition between the soul and the spirit of mankind and the two different philosophies enacted upon that vibrancy. It certainly did matter what Reagan believed and did, but Reagan was one of those people acting as a fulcrum in history, and thus the special nature of the United States and the Presidency allowed him to channel 250 million souls and aided in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In a way, it had to be that people could only succede against the Soviets if they believed that the Soviets would be around forever. Because that increases the race's long range progression planning. If people thought that the threat was short, like terrorism, you would have a lot of collaboraters and people gambling to be on the "winning side" so that they can get the perks. The socialists in the 1950s definitely were collaborators. And thus, it also aided the human spirit in East Europe. It did not get their hopes up. It made them tougher psychologically because they prepared themselves for a long fight. It makes sense to me that if they want to fight at all, they should plan for a long fight, not a "Short Victorious War". Those almost never work. And therefore, it appears to me that this is one of those vice a versa self-fulling prophecies. Where to plan against something, in fact makes that eventuality less likely to happen. Where as self-fulling prophecies is someone planning against an eventuality, while in reality increasing the chances of that eventuality becoming real.

"The answer may seem simple; it is not."

Most quantum world formations are not simple, simply because it is Chaos Theory. Anyone familiar with philosophy would understand the epistemological ramifications of erasing logical postulates, in an attempt to go back in time to the root cause. One of the problems is knowledge and how to acquire it. Thus one tends to violate Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle to use information from one world line continuum to predict the events in another world line continuum as if things are the way we predict or observe them as, not as we make them by the unintended consequences of our actions. Because the Uncertainty Principle is anything, if not the unintended consequences of people's actions.

A lot of the information we just don't know, because that knowledge could only be obtained from taking certain actions. Actions that were not taken at a specific space-time coordinate. Going back, is not erasing something and filling in a blank, going back (if applicable) would be overwriting something. Thus, we will never know what exactly would happen if something was erased in time. Much of those calculations are done in the fabric of the universe itself, not by human minds, machines, and microchips. People really not only don't know, they can't know, the ramifications of altering an action in space-time. For example, if Bush hadn't invaded there is always the possibility that Saddam could later down the line aid in the destruction of America. If not in our lifetimes, then in future lifetimes. But that knowledge of events may only be derived if you actually allow the universe to work out the permutations, and to do that you must not invade Iraq. Unfortunately for this space-time continuum line, we've already done that. And that action cannot be erased. You could overwrite it, by trying to scripple in the margins "we didn't mean to invade, we'll leave now", but anyone can see that just makes the writing messier.

In the end, it is all about human trust. Who do you trust to have a better judgement, a better grasp on reality, and a more disciplined ability to reign in human nature? If ultimate 100% knowledge is not available, then all you are left with is probabilities and equations with a lot of unknowns in them. While we won't know what exactly might happen given a sequence of events in the fabric of reality, we do know that better people have a better chance to evade disaster. Communists and Communism weren't good, and they didn't create better people, i.e. bad people leads to bad events.

One of the things I remember reading is "Why do bad things happen to good people". And I always wonder why they just don't study physics, logic, and philosophy. Bad things happen to good people because given infinite time and an unfinite sample of humanity, anything will happen to anyone at least once. A better question is, "why do bad things always happen to good people only" or "why do good people only have bad things happen to them". But that begs the question of whether bad things always occurs to good people or whether good people only have bad things happen in their lives. The reason may not be the personal humane one they may seek, but it is still a reason.

At 8:52 PM, January 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, but the Iraq observations made by anonymous seem to me to necessarily lead to two conclusions: Don't question what the president does; and once the president has embarked on a course, he should stick with it no matter what.

Since I'm assuming anonymous doesn't agree with either of those corollaries, perhaps he/she can explain to me where I am incorrect in drawing them.

Neo-neocon, while finding anonymous's statements worthy enough to recommend them to a wider audience, has hedged a bit. To roughly paraphrase, if I may: "We should try to evaluate the decisions we've made, but that's difficult."

Sure it is. But what do you do if, having succeeded in evaluating the decisions you've made, you conclude that they were wrong? Should you plunge ahead regardless, because "the image of being stuck at the fork in the road and collapsing, exhausted, doesn't inspire confidence"?

Just hypothetically, of course, if the generic "you" conclude your decisions had been wrong; I would hate to suggest that Bush had made any decisions that were wrong.


At 2:19 AM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Don't second guess a person's decisions unless you're willing to be that person and take responsibility for making a different decision.

The corrolary being, question with the knowledge that you don't have the responsibility and never will.

I always prefered the will to academic debate. Cause there was a certain nobility to triumph. And I think Leni Riefenstahl picked that up. I have to see that movie she made up sometime.

Most of it can be encapsulated in the popular vernacular, "Monday quarterbacking". But football is a game, even if it is all American, and most of life is definitely not a game. People watch football because it is fun and exciting, but that is not how they should treat life threatening decisions in the real world.

I'd rather think Neo's greater point is in actual fact, you should evaluate decisions, but take into consideration how much you don't know compared to how much you do know, and analyze how that compares to everyone else.

What a person does when he finds out that he has been wrong about being wrong, is his own decision, not anyone else's.

The whole idea of a wrong decision is a wrong idea. So that is why a lot of people are indeed are wrong about things being wrong. It does no good to evaluate anything when all it does is compare an objective decision to a person's subjective standards and fantasy reality.


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