Wednesday, May 18, 2011

ontological stubbornness (restored and reposted)

NB: Blogger's restoration of previously lost posts seems to happening in a rather awkward manner: the affected posts are being returned to us as "drafts" that we can republish, instead of being re-inserted in the chronology. Comments that had been appended to the recovered posts may or may not appear soon.

Original post follows.

It was a metaphysical rumination prompted by birdshit on my windshield. Some incontinent ornithoid had voided a rather prodigious gout of splat onto my car, leaving me simultaneously chagrined and agog at the accuracy of nature's best dive bombers.

On the day this happened, I was in a rush to get to work, and when I hit the freeway, I gunned it and tore across the asphalt at 90 miles per hour. While I flew along, I activated the windshield wipers and spray and managed to clear off most of the offending mess. Some of the crap lay beyond the reach of the wipers, but that was all right; the greater part of the schmutz was literally gone with the wind.

We've had a string of beautiful spring days in my part of the state, and since my car's A/C doesn't blow cold air, I've been taking advantage of the weather by rolling down my windows as I scream along. On the day in question, I didn't want to open my windows until the wiper fluid had streamed completely off both the windshield and the driver's-side window. I rocketed down the road... thirty seconds... a minute... and almost all the water had disappeared from the window on my side, save three tiny drops that clung desperately to the glass and refused to be blown away. I may have hit the two-minute mark before those droplets finally disappeared, but their persistence is what prompted me to think about remainders—residue—in nature.

Apparently, it works like this: squirt a bunch of wiper fluid onto your windshield, and most of it will disappear in a flash as you're driving along. A small portion, however, will refuse to die a quick death. Sweep the dust off your hardwood floor with a dustpan and brush, and you'll always get that annoying line of dust at the front edge of the dustpan—the sort that can only be picked up by enlisting the aid of a damp paper towel. Try eating everything on your plate with just your utensils—fork or knife or spoon or chopsticks—and note how much of your meal remains stubbornly on the plate in the form of sauce blots and crumbs. We could take this thinking in a more sinister direction, and it would still hold true: bomb a city to smithereens, and you'll have survivors crawling out of the wreckage. In every case—windows, floors, plates, or cities—the only way to get rid of the remainders is through far more specific, targeted action. That, or there needs to be an overwhelming cataclysm: a supernova to get rid of your bombing-survivor problem, for instance.

What is this tendency, which seems built into the very fabric of reality? For the moment, I'll call it ontological stubbornness—a blind persistence in the face of ordinary measures to get rid of things. Hospital workers know about this phenomenon: sterilization procedures usually take care of 99% of the microorganisms they target, leaving that annoying 1% remainder. This is why sterilization so often involves a series of steps, wherein each step gets rid of 99% of the remaining pathogens, with zero pathogens as a sort of asymptote. The result of this procedure, as we all know, is the robust return of those pathogens, which can only be knocked back by even more stringent sterilization procedures.*

This train of thought about remainders has spooky anthropological implications. Could belief in the soul be rooted in our intuitions about this stubbornness? With the physical body no longer here, do we survivors instinctively expect there to be some sort of residue, some faded thing that clings to this plane of existence? "Everything is on its way somewhere," declared John Travolta in the movie "Phenomenon"—a sentiment that would make Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu nod energetically in agreement. But what if some of those things—included under Travolta's umbrella term "everything"—don't want to leave, and resist attempts at ushering them off the stage?

*It's enough to make one wonder what would happen in a typical SF time-travel scenario. We often assume that, were we to travel back in time, we'd succumb to pathogens that no longer exist or that no longer present much of a threat in modern times. The tougher people of the past, rife with germs and hardy thanks to their ironclad immune systems, would laugh at our weakness. But the reverse scenario is also conceivable: we in the modern age could be so used to superbugs that, upon traveling to the past, we'd unleash plagues and epidemics that would make the Black Death blush.


Charles said...

Yay! Actually, the comment I wanted to make here was simply to wonder if this was in anyway inspired by the recent killing of bin Laden. As I read it, I couldn't help thinking about how this applied to the "war on terror." Sure, we may kill a crapload of terrorists, but to destroy all terrorists? Well, that's impossible. Even more so when you put it in terms of destroying ideologies.

Kevin Kim said...

Long, long delay in response.

I wasn't thinking specifically about bin Laden, but I can see how the theme of this post might be applicable to the question of rooting out Islamic terrorism.