Road Tripping

Sometime around June 22 I’m going to drive with dad to a camp in New Hampshire.  It’s in a tiny out-of-the-way spot, surrounded by mountains, where they have purposely not allowed any cell-phones, or mobile broadband, which is to say, I will be completely cut-off from the internet.  The idea is to share the driving with him (he’s in his mid-eighties) and it’s about a six hour drive.

I’ll stay up there for one day, and then take a plane back to NYC.

I suspect that this is one of those mini-dramas created by the fates to put some sort of closure between him and me, but I doubt if being in the car together for 6 hours will do it.  I doubt if any son ever completely resolves all issues with their fathers.  In our case, I think there’s just a lot of male competition to be king of the world.

What are all these issues?  Probably just the usual stuff about who is going to be in control; who is most powerful.  Stuff you can read to your heart’s content in King Lear, or Oedipus the King.

There’s an ebb and flow, just below the surface (usually) of this struggle, and no matter how many times you think it’s finally been resolved, it pops up again.   His own father, dead these last 40 years still in dad’s head.

You know what the game is…?  Blame Mom & Pop.  Of course, they can just pass it back to their own Mom & Pop, and before you know it – you have something that smells very much like Original Sin.  From my current philosophic perch (which won’t last long),  seeing the generations as a series of causes and effects – nothing really does get resolved.  You decide that your parents were lousey in some area and you resolve to be different with your own kids.  Of course you don’t get it exactly right and your own kids resent you for it.

Intellectually, you know what your parents went through.  Maybe they made great sacrifices to raise you right.  Maybe they had the best of intentions.  But somewhere, somehow – things didn’t work out as they or you planned.  Everyone is puzzled.

Like I say, there is a such thing as an original cause, and if you believe that actions have causes – then it’s just an endless string of generations, trying to get it right; or not trying at all.

It’s very hard to place blame, if you don’t really believe in the idea of free will.  Ah, there’s a subject for a light blog post.  Free Will vs. Determinism.  It seemed very clear to me, even when I was a pre-teen, that if every action had a cause, or a series of causes, that there just couldn’t be any real free will.  It feels like you are making decisions, but that is an illusion.  I’m pretty sure about that.  The very idea that an individual can break out of the cause-and-effect chain of nature & nurture – just never made sense.

I decided to write this post this morning.  Well why did I decide that?  The idea of a road trip with my father, well, it had some of the elements that make a good drama: an enclosed space; a beginning and an end; and two characters with conflicts to resolve.  Think Thelma and Louise, or any number of road pictures.  But why would the dramatic possibilities even come up at all for me?  After all, the trip is a month in the future.

That’s easy.  I think dramatically.  I wrote little plays when I was still in my teens.  I read Zoo Story (two characters, enclosed space etc.)

And there is a chain of cause and event that is way too complex to fully grasp, that leads to this post.  But just because the chain of events is too complex to see, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  It just means that it is long and complex.

If you follow this chain of reasoning, you end up with the unacceptable idea that no one is responsible for anything.  This is what really drives people nuts.  The guy that insulted you yesterday, is no more responsible for his actions than the murderer you just saw on the news.  And if they’re not responsible – then how can they be blamed for their actions.

Here’s how I go about it: in the grand scheme of things, they are not responsible, yet they must be treated as if they were.  If you don’t, then life would simply be unbearable.

You need to be able to act as if people (including yourself) are responsible for their decisions.  You need to live life as if you had free will.   Without that illusion, life isn’t worth living.  We all live with illusions.  Whether they’re created for us by organizations, or countries, or whether we build them ourselves – it is simply not feasible for mere mortals to have a worthwhile life without the illusion of making decisions and being responsible for them.

Yes, we all make decisions every day.  But the idea that we had a choice in these decisions, that’s the part I consider an illusion.  It’s sort of like asking the weight that’s falling from a building why it decided to accelerate at 32 feet per second squared until it hits terminal velocity.  Except that we aren’t weights, and the string of causes and effects are just too complex to follow.  And since the impetus is so complicated, we may as well act as if we are making the choices.

And so – I like to imagine that my road trip with dad will be a chance for us to bond, and to resolve our mutual issues, but I also know that is just another illusion, and hopefully we’ll simply have a good time together, and I’ll get a chance to photograph some beautiful scenery in New Hampshire.

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Dave

My name is Dave Beckerman. I am a photographer and programmer working in New York City.

12 thoughts on “Road Tripping”

  1. It turns out that cause and effect, in the sense that we understand it, may not exist at the quantum level. Existence at that level is probablistic, measured by chance. Matter and energy seem to pop in and out existence, like in that carnival game where you have to hit the clown heads popping out of holes. Also, experiments with entangled photons show that information may be transmitted instantaneously at a distance, instead of being limited by the speed of light. This also challenges the idea of cause and effect.

    If this is the case, your idea about personal responsibility being deterministic may be true anyway. If we are ultimately not responsible for our behavior because it comes at the end of a long chain of determined causes and effects, we are even less responsible if our behavior is determined randomly.

    I am headed to Atlantic City with my son right now, pinning my hopes on randomness. Do I have a choice?

  2. Of course you don’t have a choice. Your fate, as well as that of your son, were written long ago (even if there is some element of randomness involved). The question is whether you have a chance. And that too was written long ago. Which is why we say, Good Luck!

  3. Well, this isn’t what I expected to find on this blog when I logged in this morning, but that very nature of the blog is why I do log in.

    I do believe we have a choice, every minute. But’s that just me.

  4. I know this guy who runs intensive meditation courses in Sri Lanka. It is hard work and people can get pretty upset from time to time, just sitting there without distraction, and they have regular sessions with him to talk it over. He says the Americans and Westerners in general keep bringing up their parents as the source of psychic problems. But the Asians never blame their parents at all. Would never occur to them.

  5. Freud, psychology, going back to your childhood to figure out why you are the way you are – as far as I know all originated in European / western culture. The idea of the honored ancestor – definitely not a western idea. And our psychological makeup is reinforced by every talk show.

    It carries over into politics, and every aspect of our culture. There’s nothing we like better, for example, than to elect a president (father figure) and then blame him for everything that goes wrong.

    Nobody wants to blame themselves.

  6. As a physicist and an admirer of Dave’s photography I have to protest against information being transmitted faster than the speed of light. Indeed, entangled photons exist and a measurement of one in (say) New York _immediately_determines_ the result of the measurement of the other in (say) Warsaw, but no _information_ can be transmitted in this way. More: laws of nature ARE deterministic. Even if a result of an experiment is subject to probability, the distribution of this probability (if you made several copies of the experiment to get a number of results) is determined by prior events. Some say – and I agree – that if G-d created (deterministic) laws of nature, He’s law-abiding enough not to mess with fate of the worlds.

    Greetings from sunny Warsaw

    Lukasz

  7. As Dave said in his original blog entry, we need to find fault, we need to try to assign “sensible” causes to every effect. This is our nature. This is how myth developed and how philosophy developed and how science developed. It is not simply a way to deflect blame for our behavior.

    The real questions are:

    1. Is there such a thing as truth?
    2. Is that truth ascertainable by our minds?
    3. Why do certain people eschew pizza crusts, while others chew them voraciously?

  8. And responding to Lukasz from sunny Warsaw:

    I am uncomfortable with physicists who invoke god, especially when superstition prevents them from naming him. And why would you suppose god is law-abiding, if, by definition, he (she? it?) is the origin of law, and could overturn laws on a whim?

    My dear Lukasz, I do not know if god exists, or, if he does indeed exist, he created a universe that we are capable of understanding. But if you could explain to me, and prove to me through an undeniable argument, why one person saves his pizza crust to the end in order to savor it while another leaves it uneaten in his plate, I might be willing to accept your G-d.

  9. Uncomfortable this is or not – no information can be transmitted faster than the speed of light, according to our present knowledge.

    I refused to name God not because of superstition (what kind of superstition would that be?), but of pure respect to people who do not name Him either.

    I indeed suppose He is law-abiding, since can’t find an empirical proof of otherwise. Although some might perceive this lack of a visual intervention as a sign that He doesn’t exist altogether.

    And I do not know whether He exists, either.

    As for the proof of your problem – I don’t think God has anything to do with it. He set the system in motion and two of the results are a person who savours his pizza and another who savours sunny Warsaw.

    Peace

    Lukasz

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