Wednesday, June 18, 2008

2004 ALDS Game 1: On Human Freedom

From the Archive:

(Upon reading this again, I can't say I stand behind many of the statements. Though I would stand behind them if they'd hide me from the embarassment they cause. Oh, the ironing.)

October 6, 2004:

Thoughts inspired by Game 1, ALDS; Sox v. Angels, Sox up 1-0

If the process doesn't matter, the result doesn't matter. With whether this is a cliché, truism, or motivational aphorism, I am not concerned. The truth of it, however, is quite relevant to our current situation with those monkey-humpers in California.

Would it be satisfactory to learn, upon waking from a coma three weeks from now, that the Red Sox had won the World Series? Or would you rather have been there all along, absorbed in every pitch? Frankly, I'd rather have been so absorbed and have the Sox lose, than to awake three weeks from now to see that they'd won.

What people don't realize is that probabilities are determinate. It is usually thought that if something is only probable, and not certain, that it is indeterminate. Not so. You see, if something is going to happen, say, 60 % of the time, it is a determinate fact of the matter that it will happen 60 % of the time. To accept a formula that predicts such a value is to be committed to the determinacy of the formula- what it says will happen will happen.

When we watch baseball over the course of a season, we are well aware of the determinacy of probabilities. For instance, back in March, I (and Dave and Marc) picked the Sox to win 98 games this year. They won 98 games. When a computer simulation of such scenarios are run, the various numbers act as causal determinants, and hence determine an outcome, the variances of which are also quantifiably known.

Contingency, on the other hand, is the essence of life. The emotional force of the philosophical conflict between free will and determinism is the one between fate and chance, law and freedom, predictability and spontaneity. Imagining what could have been, or what could be, is essential to our concepts of ourselves, and our place in our minds, society, and the universe at large.

No one wants to be a statistic. Corporations, cognizant of such a fact about their demographic audience, peddle their elixirs with individualist labels, conveniently offering the public an opportunity to express their true selves by associating themselves with a particular cola. They know that a certain percentage of people will feel that way.

Insurance companies know that x number of people will have certain kinds of accidents. This formula is deterministic. If it weren't, they wouldn't profit. Same with Vegas, same with everything.

Probabilities are determinate because the various underlying causal factors all cancel out. They can be ignored. But they are still there, and we mustn’t forget that.

So the trick to transcending such determinacy is actually embracing the underlying causal factors. This sounds counterintuitive, because we think freedom is opposed to causality, which is associated with determinism.

But where a vast number of opposing dynamic causal forces are intertwined, these vast numbers of random fluctuations left out of statistical formulations, is just where our most important concept emerges- contingency.

You see, causality is the basis of contingency. Statistical determinism works just because it ignores the contingencies of the actual causal factors- why anyone actually has an accident, or why any one person rather than another feels like obeying his thirst or just doing it.

It is by embracing the multitude of conflicting causal forces, by being awash in the pushes and pulls of millions of directions, that creates contingency, and from there, freedom. It is the only kind of freedom we may have.

Which brings us back to the playoffs. We could run the numbers and probably get the outcome that the sox beat the angels. But here I will embrace a cliché, a truism; games are not played on paper. Should they be? Of course not. Because what this truism really means is that we are ready and willing and wanting to embrace the contingencies that are left out of the determinate formula which will tell us ahead of time who will win.

And when that formula is determining, the result is determined. But how we get there- the process- is exactly that nexus of contingent factors, those which are ignored by the formula, which are the very events of our lives, the events that could have gone either way, the wishes and regrets and triumphs that we strive for, the accidents we might or might not have had, the poker we might or might not have won, the accepting and challenging of deterministic forces along the way as it suits our demeanors and interests, corporate or otherwise.

So when I watch a playoff game, I see the beautiful contingencies of human life all encapsulated in the wonderfully asymmetrical expanse of the outfield, roughly circumscribing the symmetrical order of the infield. I do not talk about next year’s free agents. I do not talk about my life. For in my life, I will never experience such freedom, the freedom from the determining forces of universe. A half-centimeter on the bat, one burst seam on a ball, a fleeting glare from a compact mirror in the stands, a split second on the bases, such infinitesimal discrepancies in initial conditions solidify and branch off into an infinity of diverse futures. Each event in baseball does this; each event is recorded and contributes irrevocably to these diverse futures.

If a mediocre player gets lucky and performs above his ability, we must not say that he couldn’t do that again if given the chance, because it is just the point- that he did it here, did it now. There is no such thing as luck in this context. Luck is relative to a deterministic formula. In the context of the playoffs where statistical determinism falters and shows its true colors, there is no such basis for comparison. To want to see if he could do it again is just to ask whether he could be more of a robot, designed to automatically respond identically each time, to be more controlled by deterministic mechanism. But he is a human. It is a new day, they say. Throw the statistics out the window, they say. And with good cause. There is no past determining now. There is a totally indeterminate, open future, in the strongest sense.

Remember, determinism only makes sense when a given past state necessarily yields a future one. We thus have freedom only to the extent that we are absorbed in the contingencies of the present moment, a point of view from which the past is immaterial, and hence plays no role and exerts no influence, and where we entertain no thoughts of any future that constrains the limitless possibilities from where we stand.

Sure, we could find out the result. Just go in a coma and then read the paper. But the only reason we should care about the result is in the process, the how we get there. To experience the process, and really, truly feel the freedom of contingency against the overarching and domineering background of determinacy that we feel all the time, I take no calls, and I chit no chat, during a playoff game. I want to watch every pitch, pick up every little chance fluctuation that leaves its indelible mark on the game, and on the future. I don’t want to just read the box score. I don’t want to just glance around and catch a few moments of the game while I chat, as if it was just more stylish hipster scenery. If Damon's chopper had the slightest difference in its spin, does Figgins double pump and throw wildly home, leading to 5 unearned runs? Does Schilling's having a large lead as a result alter his pitch sequences to Anaheim hitters, so that he can save his real good, tricky stuff for when he might need a surprise in a potential game 5? This is what I want to know. This, more importantly, is what I want to feel. I want to feel the infinite contingencies, each resulting from the myriad of opposing causal forces that can usually be ignored for the sake of living a life of order, predictability, and profit. I want to totally suspend disbelief, and believe instead that life could be so open, so full of possibility. The game is a beautiful abstraction in this respect. To think about the future, or the past, or anything else is to totally destroy the illusion, and for me, the primary reason for caring at all. Why should I care who wins if I am not personally involved, through my aesthetic loss of self and my identification with not just the people, or even the players, but rather the dynamic interaction of the events themselves? I mean, its just sports, right? Who cares? And why should we care about next year’s free agents? If we don't care about right now, the very present moment, without another thought in the world, why would we care who's on the team next year? We should be living for this, and living through this. If I were at the ballpark I could ignore the commercials, and watch the players roll grounders between innings. Does someone’s arm hurt? Is there some animosity between teammates? Every little bit of information I can glean becomes immensely important, these wonderful little contingencies that matter just now, in this little closed system of bare dynamics, where human freedom is expressed most truly, as against the grain of the oppressive determinism of law, morality, finances and biological function.

As the hippies like to say, live in the now, man. That's right, gentle hippies. For it is only now, and not before, and not later, that we are free.
Be that as it may, we mustn’t forget values. Value is what directs our looking forward, the division between being acting and being acted on, and what gives us purpose rather than a mark for attendance at the scene. So when I embrace this present, I do so with the hope that indeed it is structured in certain ways, and not in others; the ways that I value. And the value of a Red Sox World Series is, as the corporations have learned by intensive market research, priceless.

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