Thursday, January 08, 2009

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

I had a curious discussion with a friend of mine the other evening, and I'm stunned to think that someone as intelligent as he held such a ludicrous opinion.

I proposed that life is a zero sum game: I win, you lose, that's the end of it.

See, life itself is the ultimate zero sum game. A body dies, and is reabsorbed into the collective resources of the world, to create other life. But that body doesn't reanimate...except in zombie movies and maybe the Republican party's Reagan wing. That creature loses. Full stop. It's done.

The entire system is closed, so ultimately there are no win-win scenarios. That can only happen in open systems, where the totality of resources available can increase. If you and I agree to team up and improve our lot, by definition we improve our lot at the expense of someone (or something) else. Symbiosis only works at a tiny micro level, and then only at the expense of something outside the combination.

Take the shark and the pilot fish. The pilot fish never gets eaten by the shark because it cleans the shark of parasites and scraps from its teeth, which benefits the shark. The pilot fish gets protection from predators, because who'd be dumb enough to get that close to a shark? Pretty symbiotic. They're protecting each other's life. The shark even gets free dental care.

Note, tho, that this supports the shark in his feeding on other fish.

Life is quantitative. Life holds no emotion. Life is chaotic and random.

"No, no," my friend says, and puts forth the following scenario.

A man gets home from work. He has a choice to make: spend time with his family or go bike riding. He can choose to postpone his quality time and go bike riding, since the kids will be there when he returns and there's limited amounts of daylight. Too, the bike ride will make him healthier and give him more time to spend with his kids as the years pass.

I had to admit, this wasn't a bad example of a win-win...until I thought about it.

This is a qualitative decision, not quantitative. I'll get back to that, but first let me analyze this from a quantitative position.

First, the bike: unless it's built of bamboo and the tires are hemp, we're talking about something that was manufactured out of some non-sustainable natural resource, which means that natural resource was now unavailable for other uses.

This friend (he had a specific person in mind) happens to be an avid biker, so I can guess at the bike and what is was made of. It was not bamboo and hemp.

A factory made it, a factory which had to spew an incremental amount of waste into the environment, the same environment that my friend is riding his bike to have less of an impact on.

A factory that had to use an incremental amount of energy, which was probably (altho I can't be certain of this) not renewable.

The tires are petroleum based, so there's the oil extracted from the ground to make that. And what is oil? Dead dinosaurs. One could jokingly make the claim that a dinosaur had to die for my friend to ride his bike (but that would be extremist), and that's before we get to the necessary lubricants to keep the bike moving smoothly.

Now, none of this is to judge bike riding or my friends' value judgements. I applaud and support those. Indeed, I have a pretty hot ride myself and enjoy pedaling around. It's healthy, makes me feel better and gets me off my ass.

The decision to postpone family time for the bike ride is a zero-sum equation too, altho of a far more subtle and benign nature: until someone can clone me, I can't be in two places at once. If I'm not at home with my kids, I'm riding. Full stop. It doesn't matter if I can do one later, this is an either/or choice right now.

Life is quantitative. It is humans who make it qualitative. And there rises a dilemma.

Imposing a new layer on top of life is going to impose conflict as well. By placing value judgements on things we do and things others do is denying life its essential randomness.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing. I, for one, applaud that someone else is legally prohibited from killing me, so long as they abide to our laws, even if physically they can and that there might indeed be some value to them in doing so.

Here's the oddity, tho. By layering our values on top of this quantitative system, we insist that we are doing it out of some motivation of making things "fair," that we are maintaining order.

Order on chaos. I suppose there's something to that when you deal with sentient beings. After all, I may want to take (not steal) your food and eat it for myself, but if I do that often enough, you die and then I have to find some other food source. And your dead. Neither of us really wins, but if we work together, growing and preparing the food, we can survive. Neither of us really loses in the short term.

But in the background, there's life and as we all know, life is not fair. Both of us will die.

Life is unfair. Bollocks. In fact, life is the ONLY fair game in town. The events that happen in life, earthquakes, fires, floods, weather, disease, and so on, can hit you, they can hit me, they can hit Donald Trump, and there's no logic or order to them. Life levels the playing field that man's "order" works so hard to preserve.

If you look superficially at the positions of the two major political parties in this country, you'd be tempted to think that conservatives recognize this subtlety, while liberals do not. After all, life is hard and the conservatives want to acknowledge that in their positions: those who have, get more, those who don't, lose. The liberals attempt to impose a sort of "fairness" to the world, to shift resources around, ignoring the basic fairness of life.

In truth, it's just the opposite. The more conservative Republican party tries to impose order and discipline on an essentially chaotic system, while the more liberal Democratic party acknowledges that life is fair, and that each of us has to live it, so why make your life more miserable in order to make my life incrementally better?

Liberals live in a world where we recognize that to prevent chaos is not going to work all the time, so the best we can hope to do is to mitigate its effects. Conservatives want to try to keep the wolf from the door, while forgetting there are no walls.

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