Interlude: Hieros Gamos Out The Yin-Yang

We’re getting there.

But first we go back here:

So what’s an “holistic cause”?  It’s a strategy for

“…Exploring relationships in the bigger system, and even effecting changes in them. But we have to get our heads around this: what does it mean, to try to operate a system that we can never know everything about? That we can never even know how much we don’t know about? The small system gives us little mental consoles where all the causal relationships are drawn together. Picture yourself standing at it: it’s pretty big, but you can see that if you just bash away randomly at the buttons there is some possibility of getting something right, because anyway you are standing in front of it, you know where all the key activators are, even if you don’t know what they do. And one way or another there are only so many of them, which means that even if that number is quite large all the connections the number governs are still internal to the console.

Except…

What if it is so large that it covers every inch of the room you’re standing in, floor ceiling and walls?

What if it covers every inch of the whole building, that contains the room?”

But having said all that, I admit it…it’s reaching a bit, right?  I mean the idea is that I start with some system and say its workings aren’t reducible, so we have to operate it “holistically”, and that’s all fine but what does it mean?  How does one do it?  And what could ever serve as a nice neat convincing example of such a system anyway, I mean this business of “pretend you couldn’t know”, that isn’t exactly the real pure Socrates…why not just pretend you can know, wouldn’t that make things easier?  And cost half as much?  You cannot give me a concrete example of operating a system “holistically”, that isn’t just a cheap superstition easily replaced by actual, real, tangible, and effective scientific knowledge…!

Oh…

Can’t I?

Let us suppose, just to see what we can knock out of it, that the studies showing married people live longer are not just a bunch of crap.  Of course, they may be:  they might be riddled with selection bias, they could be totally untrustworthy…but then so might studies showing that grandmothers like to drink tea, so let’s just say we’re willing to believe them, and then see if we can zero in on a reason to believe them.  I mean, this is actually not too hard to do:  if you spend half your life sleeping next to the same person, it seems pretty reasonable to say that they might notice when you have a massive stroke in the middle of the night, and so in the ordinary course of things might call an ambulance for you.  So in this light, saying that married people live longer isn’t any more controversial than saying hikers using the buddy system die less frequently than those who don’t…although really that isn’t what we’re measuring, it bears pointing out:  we’re actually measuring with what greater frequency non-buddy-system hikers die, right?…and the rest is just conjecture…

But acceptable conjecture considering the plain and immediate fact that saving a person’s life is easy, because sometimes all you have to do is be around.  And then we could go on from there, you see, once having got that all sorted, and maybe also say:  well, being long-lived actually means living longer into old age, doesn’t it, so maybe if you crunched the numbers a bit more you would find that it’s being married when you’re ninety that increases your odds of extending your lifespan, and being married when you’re thirty is actually pretty irrelevant to the statistical pattern.  So it isn’t “being married” that even does the trick then, is it?  Because studies would probably show that old people in nursing homes tend to live longer than old people who live in garbage dumps, too!   So, okay, maybe “being married” isn’t even a thing, causally-speaking — it’s just proximity to other people that counts, and the lifespan it adds is like a year, two, five, basically however lucky you get that’s how many years it adds, and these aren’t even the good years so it isn’t the statistician’s fault if it just so happens married people spend more time around other human-shaped objects than unmarried ones do.  Right?

Well…

But maybe not, of course.  Because is it not a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of the good fortune to have gotten himself a wife shall be in want of a glass of whole milk from time to time, and unable to find anything but skim in the fridge?  So although we probably can’t prove a whole lot about how this person or that person is failing to die because their eating habits got slightly modified a half-century earlier, we can probably allow as how more people with crap diets fall before the scythe at younger ages in general, than ones who get the right amount of, let’s say, at least Vitamin C.  So these statistics work from youth up as well as age down, inevitably…even though at first glance it may not look like it…and also I mean there are statistics, but then there are also specific facts that are facts:  like you should take care of yourself better, get some exercise for God’s sake, stop eating deep-fried Coca-Cola for breakfast.  Because no one denies that it’s superstitious nonsense to say walking under a ladder is bad luck, you know?  But if you keep making a point of walking under those goddamn ladders, pretty soon you’re going to find out that there are worse things than bad luck, and that one of ‘em is being a bloody fool.

So…maybe diet?

Sure:  diet.  Why not.  Diet, and proximity to people and phones.  See, we’re making progress.  We don’t need to talk about “being married” as though it could lengthen your life…we don’t even have to talk about it as something that really, so to speak, “exists”!  If all we have to do is make a list of what changes about your life when you get married, then we can call those things factors in your longevity and just let ‘em stand on their own.  Right?

So what does change about your life when you get married?

Well…

For one thing, you’re fucking MARRIED, aren’tcha?  I think the married guys in the crowd know what I’m talkin’ about, amirite guys?  Marriage?  It’s sort of a lot like being married?  Not too much like not being married?  And what changes about your life is pretty much everything.  Everything in it.  Where you go, what you do.  What you think about.  How you eat, sleep, and generally carry on.  Taxes.  Public transportation.  Toothpastes.  Spending patterns.  Legal arrangements.  Contents of spice racks.  Location of spice racks.  Sometimes, existence of spice racks.  Relative preference for things made out of stainless steel.  Exposure to different kinds of varnishes.  Holiday destinations.  Familiarity with soy products.  How much change in jars you have lying around.  Frequency of minor colds and flus.  Skill with deploying eyedroppers.  Knowledge about articles of clothing.  Colour.  General likelihood of arguments about dinosaurs.  Reading material.  I’m not being sexist here, even though I started out talked about married men, nor am I being hetero-elitist or something, the fact is that the difference between being married and not being married is just that over here was a whole big EVERYTHING when you were not actually completely sharing your life with another person, and then over on this side over here you totally ARE, so the everything is DIFFERENT.  It’s a different everything altogether.  So…wanna take a shot at living longer?

Find a nice significant other, and settle down.

But of course, if you want to take a shot at living less long…

Uh…

Find a horrible significant other, and settle down?

At a certain point the whole thing is very very hard to reduce.  Find love, and live longer?  Well, okay, maybe…but you can find love and still have a hellstorm of a marriage, can’t you?  I mean, “love”, what’s that?  It’s not a real well-defined concept.  And anyway maybe love is just a long, long laundry list just like marriage itself, something that isn’t really anything…”sleep beside” “prepare food for” “bandage” “listen to” “remember quirks of”…seriously, how long could you make that list, if you wanted to, and still never include a non-essential item on it?  Love as the comic-book character who has every superpower you haven’t thought of…

“Recount violent dreams about boss to”, “deeply mistrust old boyfriends of”?

Uh…

“Make live longer”?

Okay, we can’t spread the net that wide, or pretty soon we won’t be talking about anything.  So maybe the thing to do is to separate out the “make live longer” stuff (whatever it may be) from our overly-simplistic (or should that be “overly-complicated”?) love-laundry list.  Surely there are notionally longevity-prolonging aspects of a massively changed routine that we can categorize generally, even if we can’t necessarily specify them as the ones we’re looking for, the ones belonging to the “good for longevity if married to” subcategory, the “good” ones, the “right” ones.  And if they go along with certain people rather than with certain other people, then we could call those people the “right” ones…so…

Find the “right one” to love, and live longer?

Well, okay…as a general principle, all right, though it doesn’t bring us any closer to being able to say anything useful…but then suppose you do find some mysterious “right one”, then what if they die or something and you end up throwing yourself off a bridge?  Okay, well then you have to be the right person too, maybe…someone who will be capable of carrying on if they…

Or…?

Don’t walk under any…?

Pah!  This is hopeless!

Every new subcategory just creates a new list of necessary factors that can’t be identified without creating another subcategory, with more new factors!  If we can’t define the TOP layer any better, how can we possibly define any of the ones beneath it?  We don’t even know what we’re looking for!

What the hell is marriage?  BECAUSE IF IT ISN’T COMPOSED OF ANYTHING DEFINITE, THEN NEITHER CAN BE ANY OF THE LISTS OF THE FACTORS IT YOKES!

And yet we know those factors exist, because we know the statistical pattern exists.  Worse yet, we know we can have a reason to think it means something.

“You want a shot at living longer, find the right significant other and settle down.”  It does seem, on the face of it, that it would probably work, right?

But to follow that instruction to the letter is impossible, without attending primarily to its spirit;  and the kicker there is that the only way to attend to the spirit of the instruction is to adhere strictly to its letter.  So where we at.  Where we at.  For God’s sake where we at.

We are back at the beginning.  Where Cosmic Eros (not the little fellow with the bow) encourages Earth and Sky to separate.  And why?

Well, so they can get back together, of course!

Holistic causes?

Consider that if we took on board the above reductionist bias (I just made that up, and fully expect to get yelled at) (for God’s sake, I sound like an old hippie lady enthusing about crystal healing) we would I think be forced to conclude that betting people in a game of Long-Lived Marriage is at best like betting on Red or Black at the roulette wheel when the “0″ slot has been taken out.  There is no good reason for picking either one over the other.  You can’t know where the ball is going to land.  You can “feel lucky” all you want, but most people only feel lucky when they are lucky, which is to say only when they have been lucky, because who feels lucky when they’re losing?  And all else being equal, finding “the right one”, not to mention also being “the right one”, just seems like…

…I mean if we cook all the above down, don’t we get into a situation where the only sensible thing to do is not clump people into categories of “right” or “wrong” or “almost”, or any other category we can think up, but instead just to treat the whole thing sheerly as a numbers game?!  Each person is JUST ANOTHER PERSON, you cannot really know them, you cannot really predict them!  Love can be a mistaken intuition!  Circumstances are not fated, but random!  The more you bet, the more you stand to lose!  “If you want a shot at lengthening your life, pick the right person and settle down” is bullshit advice!  Like saying “if you want to win, bet at the table instead of putting your money in the bank.”  I mean, can’t you change your own life, can’t you replicate the Massive Routine Shift of marriage without actually having to get married?

Yeah, well…

Sure you can!  Like I said, I’ve known many people who’ve desperately wanted to change their lives, and who took action on it.  And they all started by not having the faintest clue how to do it.  And they all ended by not having the faintest clue how to do it.  And to be perfectly truthful it really doesn’t seem that hard a business.  Married or not.

But there is still that statistical study, isn’t there?  And at a certain point it does seem as though playing the music is more than just striking all the correct notes in their correct order.  But…

What more it actually is, I really couldn’t say.

Can you?

And so we are back at the beginning.  And maybe we had a bit of a selection bias ourselves?  After all, if it’s all about a failure of description at the TOP level…

…Then what was it, exactly, that we failed to describe?  “Studies show that married people live longer.”  Well they do.  They do!

The studies, I mean.

Okay, come back.  That’s enough for today.

I think you’re getting the hang of it.

12 responses to “Interlude: Hieros Gamos Out The Yin-Yang

  1. I have thought about this stuff.

    See, I’m married. And it is different from not being married, in some ways. I mean, I feel like basically the same person and everything, but there is stuff about my life that’s changed. One big thing is this: I don’t have to worry about being alone anymore. When you’re not in a committed, at least loosely committed if not mega committed, relationship with someone, one of the things you have to worry about is finding such a someone. Takes up a lot of your mind. And I don’t have to worry about it at all! It’s a big thing, and surprisingly easy to take for granted.

    The other thing is this: our marriage is great. I’m actually quite proud of how great it is and sometimes want to show off how great it is, but what holds me back from that is the awareness that neither of us actually did anything to make it that great. We just get along really well and make each other laugh and conspire against our kids and make plans and stuff. Contrary to popular myth, it’s not hard work. She and I talked about this once and agreed that the real effort comes in making sure you’re the kind of person who can be in such a relationship in the first place, and most of that work takes place underwater. So it’s not like there’s no trick to it; there is a trick, but it’s not really much of a trick.

    But in your article here you’re implying that people pick each other out, effectively, at random to get married to, and how we can never really know each other, and so on. There is some truth to that, but of course we know things about other people all the time. It’s obvious that people can know each other enough to go on. Cripes, you and I know something about what each other are like, and we’ve never even met. When you’re considering getting married, though, knowing the other person is only part of it; you also have to be able to recognize what’s good for you, or not, in that person, and act accordingly.

    Your attempt to reverse-engineer a good marriage to see what it is about it that’s good for people… sure, there are any number of good points to be found in the discussion, but you’re also either ignoring or denying Maslow. I propose that the whole of marriage (by which I err on the side of inclusiveness when it comes to comparable but non-formalized long-term partnerships) is, or can be anyway, greater than the sum of its parts, in how it looms in our lives. And, sure, it can be hard to pin down just what a good marriage is that people would find advantage in it, but then it’s been one of the great projects of the past, what, couple hundred years or so, to open up the idea of marriage so that different pairs of people can mix it up according to their own recipes. It’s not a bug; it’s an undocumented feature.

  2. I’m afraid you’ve misread me slightly, Matthew: I’m actually trying to point out the folly of trying to reverse-engineer a “good marriage”! And hopefully making the point that we do not pick one another out at random, we do not know nothing about one another, it is not just a numbers game…

    …And so the numbers will never add up, because it isn’t about numbers. The only way to have a good marriage is to be capable of having one, and then to have one: it can be done — people do it all the time! — but it can’t be logicked into existence.

    Can be magicked, but can’t be logicked?

  3. I sort of… I kind of intentionally misread you, because there was so much of what you wrote that was setting up that side of the argument. It was a target-rich environment.

  4. And how dare you be more succinct than me in your rebuttals!

    I’m just hoping by the time I get around to the last installment of this whatever-it-is, it’ll all fold together properly, which is possibly why I’m belabouring some of these points…

  5. By nifty coincidence, this was posted on my third wedding anniversary.

    Matthew has laid down some strong truth, and the one that jumps out at me is this notion that marriage is “hard work.” To me it sounds like one of those things that people say in movies that SOUNDS wise but is really just repeating something from a previous movie. I can’t really imagine what “work” in a marriage would even LOOK like. Like, what would you literally have to DO? What are the tasks?

    To me, relationships seem less about “work” and more about acceptable compromises. In exchange for all the wonderful things about being married to my wife, I will tolerate certain things. Some of these things are actually no problem at all (I would not have books about metalsmithing in my apartment if I were not married, but I do not MIND that they are there), and some of these things are undesirable to some degree (I would buy a different brand of frozen pizza if it were entirely up to me). And the same is true from her end (being married to me requires that she is okay with having books about the Beatles in her apartment and that any pizza that we share will not contain green peppers). You could consider it the OPPOSITE of work — we are just LETTING this pizza thing happen.

    But these compromises also can’t be described mathematically because you could never plot out every factor in determining this acceptable level of compromise. Is having a freckle on one’s left ear acceptable? Is the spice rack acceptable? Even with “dealbreakers” — they’re technically binary propositions, but there’s so MANY of them!

  6. Ha, does your wife know she is negotiating such a minefield of dealbreakers?

    I have a story…I haven’t done anything with it in a while, but it’s an alternate history thing, right? Only it’s what you’d get if you just re-ran everything from about the formation of the Earth, and randomness changed little bits here and there. So you have lots of things basically the same, for example you have family groups and language groups we would recognize fairly easily, you have basic geography, in Europe you have a “Romelike” empire that happened. You even have a “Caesarlike” character who ran it, and his name might even have been Caesar…but if we took our Caesar’s DNA and checked it against his, we would find that genetically they are close-ish relatives but we wouldn’t get much more detail than that. And if you asked me at what time in our own history such-and-such a thing happened in theirs, then I wouldn’t be able to tell you, because…randomness gets into everything, so every yardstick’s moved just a little bit but they’ve ALL moved, so the question’s a non sequitur. An actual number of things are different, but the number of things still adds up to “everything”, so you still can’t count ‘em, because you can’t compare ‘em.

    The idea being, someone reads the story and then goes “hey, I think this is actually set in France, or something!” And it is, but you can’t tell so well.

    Sort of the same thing?

  7. Only just had time to read this what with all the writing in the universe, but just wanted to say – when my uncle’s next book, on so-called ‘evidence based’ medicine, comes out… buy it. You’ll like it, based on this.

  8. Pingback: Universe Part Seven: Curse Of The Ruby Slippers « A Trout In The Milk·

  9. Pingback: Universe Part Eight: Bonfire Of The Novelties « A Trout In The Milk·

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