Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Shotgun Method

I don’t particularly like thought experiments. I can’t deny that they have their uses: they make excellent explanatory tools – who wouldn’t love mechanics of solids re-imagined as a first person shooter game? Besides, Albert Einstein used them. Where they do fail for me is as debating tools. Innumerable times has good ol' Binit (who’s a closet Sophist, I tell you) employed a thought experiment to cleverly chop the wings off a delightful flight of polemical fancy. (Can you imagine that?) Having said that, I have to, I simply have to, make an exception for the shotgun idea.

The only really satisfactory visualization I’ve come up for the rigid monotony of existence is that of a hostage situation. Most people go about their lives as though they have a loaded shotgun flush against the sides of their heads. I’m done with college, but the first example that comes to mind to illustrate this is the shotgun about exams. You don’t want to mess up an exam, because if you do, you’ll mess up this course, and if you mess up this course, you’ll mess up your grades, and if your grades go south, so do your job prospects, and you’ll just have screwed up your life. This chain is incredibly tenuous. A simple argument along the lines of “It’s just an exam!” should be enough to break it apart. But it doesn’t. Most people I know aren’t clairvoyant, and most people I know can’t see far enough into the future to really fear the outcome. Ergo, the shotgun. Everyone knows what a shotgun an inch away can do. (Perversely, the phrase ‘interior redecoration’ springs to mind.) The fear of a shotgun is palpable, imminent. It’s the only kind of fear that’ll work as a substitute for actual interest.

What will really happen if you ignore that exam? Nothing, of course. The quanta of change will always be too small to appreciate, and you’ll go into free fall in no time. You’ll eventually beg for someone to hold that shotgun to your head again. The problem is you can only call the bluff once. Think of those optical illusions where you resolve a dog in a garden from what initially looks like a featureless splotch of black and white. Can you go back and unresolve the featureless splotch? Also, It’s not just one gun that’s pointed at your head. Why don’t you drink? Does it really make sense being a perfect teetotaller when you’ve been living off junk food for years? Not to me, it doesn’t. Will you look significantly fatter if you eat that extra packet of chips? I doubt that. Yet, it’s one shotgun that’s served me well for a long time (sadly, it was recently buried under a wash of corpulence). Will it matter if I write this blog post now? Why not tomorrow? Or the day after? It’s not like I have a legion of admirers threatening suicide. It doesn’t take a lot of thought experimentation to find a shotgun for just about every activity there is. And it doesn’t take a lot of thought after that before you start to ask: ‘How many more bluffs will I call before I realize that life is a bluff itself?’

(That was a bit too melodramatic for my taste, but I’d typed that into an empty text file in a particularly poignant moment, and I had to bring it in somewhere). At that point it occurred to me that this analysis is dangerously close to the existentialist concept of angst. The shotgun is, in a sense, a response to the heady sense of freedom. There’s only so many times you can appreciate the fact that there’s nothing really that stops you from doing what you want, only so many times you laugh conformity and danger in the face, before you descend into madness. Ergo, the shotgun. Ambition and purpose are most certainly life’s biggest bluffs, but necessary ones. I’d prefer a life with an army of shotguns pointed at my head over utter pointlessness anyway. Besides, I’m about to start a job, and that calls for at least a double barrelled shotgun, doesn’t it? Preferably sawn-off, and not more than a couple of inches from the temple.