Turing's Blurring Anxiety (TBA): Forgiving dead jerks but not live ones.

CoffinWhat do you say about a deceased jerk, someone who treated you badly before shuffling off this mortal coil?The natural temptation is to say, “She could have done better,” but what could that mean? That had she tried a little harder, she would have been able to control her vices? Meaning if she had been the kind of person who tries harder? In other words, that she could have done better if she had been a different person? If Jan had been Susan, then Jan would have been a nicer person?

A nicer person no doubt, but then she wouldn’t have been Jan.



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With death we should forgive Jan. Jan was perfect. The perfect Jan, she did what Jan was able to do given the convergence of biological, psychological, and social influences that made her Jan. If Jan caused you all sorts of grief-troubles you’ll spend the rest of your life surmounting-there was nothing she could do about it without having been a different person than she was. Lament her effects upon you but don’t blame her for not trying. She tried exactly as well as Jan could try, given all the things Jan turned out to be.

And for that matter, why forgive only the dead? The kindness and acceptance we feel for them-shouldn’t it remind us to appreciate everyone’s perfection while they’re alive rather than wait until they’re dead, and it’s too late for them to bask in our appreciation? Aren’t we all perfectly who we are doing exactly what we’re going to do? Maybe we should abandon all our campaigns to get people to try harder.

Jedi Master Yoda said, “Do or not do. There is no try,” which rings true enough. But if it’s true, it’s very troubling. No try?! Really??!!

Last week I talked about the difference between determining whether all men are mortal and determining whether all the bills in your wallet right now are twenties. The pool of men (at least until our extinction) is infinite, an open-ended set. The pool of bills in your wallet right now is finite, a closed set.

A deceased person’s life is a closed set. Not the consequences of that life, which continue to unfold, but the deeds, the actions of it, in a straightforward sense they’re done when the person dies. To say someone could have tried harder or done better makes as much sense as saying that one of the ten-dollar bills in your wallet could have been a twenty.

While we live, however, our lives are open sets. There’s still plenty of guesswork involved in determining what will eventually happen before our lives become closed sets. With open sets, try makes plenty of sense.

At Jan’s death, the universe closes the book on her deeds and the thing called Jan gets its final, comprehensive deeds-based definition such that to speak of different deeds is to speak of someone other than Jan. But as long as we’re alive the universe hasn’t closed the book on our deeds. There’s no definitive deeds-based definition of us. The set is open and we try to tip the deeds one way or another. Another day; another bill for the wallet. We try to make this next one a twenty.

Last week I mentioned Alan Turing’s halting problem. Turing demonstrated that a computer programmed to break a code wouldn’t be able to tell when to stop trying to break the code. Unless or until it breaks the code it can’t tell whether the thing can’t be broken or just hasn’t been broken yet.

As applied to everyday life, I call it Turing’s Blurring Anxiety (TBA). If you’re wondering if you’ll ever succeed, unless and until you do succeed, you won’t be able to tell whether you can’t or you can but just haven’t yet. On the question “Will I succeed?” “No” and “Yes, someday” blur together indistinguishably, which is why it’s hard to know when to stop trying. It’s an open question (To Be Announced) until your death.

“Will I succeed by next Thursday?” is a different sort of question, open only until then. As of Thursday there will have been “do or not do.” There will be no try.

The dead couldn’t have done other than they did. Apparently. But we can, and so we keep trying.

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