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Finding Meaning in a Deterministic World (Part 1)

My teachers during childhood pushed Catholicism. The goal of life was to live according to Jesus and to make it into heaven. I believed them until I was roughly nine,1 when I caught my mother putting money under my pillow on behalf of the tooth fairy. I was pissed and immediately put two and two together asking her, "so Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, abrakadabra,2 and God are all lies too?" My mother conceded the first three were made up, but held that God was real. Thus began the atheism phase. I was ready, willing, and able to argue with anyone that God does not exist.

The other world view tossed onto me was to serve the state.3 Unlike with Catholicism where religious leaders directly said to live a life serving God, there was nobody who explicitly said that one should dedicate their life to the USG. But being instructed to recite the pledge of allegiance4 daily and having to listen to the constant parroting of the propaganda networks talking points made the implicit message clear. America was the beacon of light that created democracy, the only "fair" form of government where everyone had a voice. It was one's life duty to maintain its existence.

Rejecting both of these philosophies early on, I fell into a mild nihilistic depression. People who believe in God or the state can use this as a reason to get up in the morning. Countless gold medal winning athletes use their faith in God to push themselves to victory. I was missing their useful delusion.

At MIT I took an introductory philosophy course that gave me some time to think about some of these bigger questions in life. One topic the class went over was free will.5 From what I discussed in the class and from reading a translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace I became convinced (and am to this day) that we live in a deterministic world. I see the universe as a process playing out a linear flow of events determined by an initial condition and a set of rules.6

This may be the same view I had during my "nihilistic depression." Except now I had a way to articulate it. And since I had captured my thoughts into words, I could start to move the perspective to a healthier point of view.

Continue to part 2

  1. Diana Coman's little one beat me to it. []
  2. My parents told me that automatic doors opened when one said abrakadabra. So I would shout abrakadabra as I walk into commercial buildings with doors that opened via sensors. I liked this power, my childhood self didn't do anything to test whether or not it was real. []
  3. The importance of the state was an emphasis at Stuyvesant High School, given that it was a government run magnet school. Stuyvesant's entrance-exam-only admittance criteria made for an interesting student body, but the administration was atrocious. Teachers get to pick where they work within NYC's Department of Education via seniority. Many awful teachers near retirement choose to teach at Stuyvesant. They always get exemplary performance reviews, because those reviews are based on the students' results on local tests. Although the local tests are meant to asses knowledge in specific subjects, in reality they are only basic literacy tests that every Stuyvesant student excels on no matter how poor their instruction. []
  4. Which went something like ~
    I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. Thank you very, very much for letting us little kids live here. It really, really was nice of you. You didn't have to do it. And it's really not freaky to have little, little kids mindlessly recite this anthem everyday and pledge their life to a government before they're old enough to really think about what they're saying. This is not a form of brainwashing, this is not a form of brainwashing, this is not a form of brainwashing. This is really the greatest country in the whole world. All the other countries suck. And if this country ever goes to war, as it often wants to do, I promise to help go and kill all the other countries' kids. God bless Johnson and Johnson. God bless GE. God bless Citigroup. Amen.


  5. I know, I know, quite the cliché topic. But when asked "do you believe in free will?" the question has a little more punch to me, given my name. []
  6. This view remains the same whether or not the code that weaves the universe contains a random function. []

4 Responses to “Finding Meaning in a Deterministic World (Part 1)”

  1. Diana Coman says:

    That Stuyvesant approach of "exam-choose the students but then turn it around so that it's mainly teachers that take advantage of it" is so infuriating, the usual sort of stuff that "public education for all" comes up with even when it pretends it doesn't.

    The advantage of having had beliefs rammed down early and then rejected by yourself is that you have very good arguments now for your own position and as such, it's way more stable than someone else's who didn't have to go through all that trouble.

  2. whaack says:

    It is infuriating. Stuyvesant swoops up a bunch of talent and then wastes it. The rest of the public zoo system is so atrocious that the parents/students are complacent. One fix would be to require the teachers pass the entrance exam. They should be held to a higher standard than the students, right? There are some good teachers that wiggled their way in through the bureaucracy, but they are rare. As luck would have it I had a great experience with my two Romanian math teachers, a Mr. Stonescu and a Ms. Pascu.

    I am fortunate to have experienced both the public school system and private school system in NYC. The luxuries of the private school enabled by money made it obvious that any merit Stuyvesant had did not come from the school itself. Right now, under the ever waving flag of fairness, there is a push to allow the valedictorians from poor neighborhoods / underprivileged schools to be admitted to Stuyvesant bypassing the entrance exam. I say let 'em in.

  3. [...] Introduction to Phonetics is a pleasure. The curriculum of the average ESL-producing American school lacks a study of the art of pronunciation. Not only is the ESLtard unable to speak another [...]

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