Sunday, January 31, 2021

Exploration as the only endgame

In one of the recent mediations, I landed on the thought that exploration is not only one endgame, it is probably the only one.

There is indeed a lot to do, but none of it is the endgame. There are no places to reach, no goals to achieve, no deeds to do. None that have any sanctity beyond keeping the entity occupied and directed.

In this vein, exploration marks the difference between the repeated and the novel. Clearly, there are many things that are repeated in a human’s life. There is a routine to most days – and often for the better.

But the preference and comfort of routine can actually take a human being down the path of behaving like an automaton through and through. There is a line that needs to be drawn – to ensure that routine is helpful for providing a semblance of structure to the life but does not ossify all of it.

Coming to the more important element of exploration, once the basic activities are routinized and taken out from the bandwidth allocation, the rest is open for exploration.

Let us not get into what to explore and how. The central idea of this article is to just highlight that exploration alone is necessary and sufficient as the endgame of a human life. (Assuming here the sustenance and safety aspects are already covered – partly in exchange for some routinization).

This seems like it may get teleological, but it does not. I am not claiming that exploration is a higher calling of some sort. I am in fact offering it as an alternative to the nihilist conclusion of any coherent worldview that is built on what is known to humanity as of now. The modernist position on this is that one’s life needs to have some purpose - e.g. “achieving one’s true potential”, “contributing to the wellbeing of fellow human beings”, “reducing suffering in the world” etc. However, once one has become disillusioned with the claims of such modernist claims, one may to go through an intermediate phase of nihilism – “nothing matters” – which can be liberating or depressing. It is depressing if one is secretly still a modernist but wants to desperately move on. It is liberating if one has indeed moved on.

Why would one be disillusioned with modernist ambitions? Not everyone would. There are lots of people that go about their lives quite productively with one or more of the modernist ambitions. However, take someone who sincerely explores the foundations of these ambitions – including one’s being, nature of self, the degree of control human beings have over their circumstances. For her, these ambitions turn out to be mired in the unfounded ideas of an era long gone. We are all dealing in memes that came about over last couple of thousand years – there is as much sanctity to these memes as there is to the fact that we have 10 fingers. Both are results of contingencies that shaped our form, our brains, and our minds. What’s more, unlike the 10 fingers that are honed over millions of years of evolution, the memes are relatively recent in origin – not only are they open to questions, but also likely to be fairly open to improvement in the evolutionary sense.

That is the only sense that has a direction, rest is meme-driven and hence open to changes.

It is in this sense of direction that I am claiming exploration to be the only endgame. It is continuation of the process that blindly brought us into existence i.e. evolution. One can extend the idea to evolution not only of intelligence and life on earth but of solar system and of the whole universe itself.

In general, matter has been exploring design spaces – initially landing on atoms and thus elements and then quickly moving on in smaller niches to molecules and hence complex chemicals. One strand of organic chemistry moved much further in complexity and led to life at least on one planet as we know it. Within this strand, one sub-strand moved further in complexity of social organization – creating a global interconnected system of organizing about 7 billion individuals of the species.

It would be quasi-teleological to say that there is a purpose to all this i.e. complexity is increasing. I wouldn’t even go that far. To me, the blind exploration of design spaces that has been going on is enough as a guideline. When matter first coalesced into hydrogen and helium, we got stars. However, these were of different size – owing to various contingencies. Some became black holes, other shone as regular stars of some size or other. Some matter didn’t coalesce into large enough blocks but remained in orbit around other large masses – giving rise to planets.

The story goes on. It is not necessarily of increasing complexity but exploration of various possibilities from a given starting point. That is how evolution happened. Such diversity of species suggests that there is more than one way of being in the world – an elephant as well as an earthworm. Human is yet another way of being here. It turned out to be a starting point of larger complexity. Now we inhabit an interesting branch of this march of exploration – one with a complex society, language, several memes and spare time and energy for further exploration.

What we do with that is up to us. The reason I am not all that enamoured by ‘happiness’ as an alternative to exploration is because it gets boring pretty fast. Also, owing to the complexities of human brain and human societies, it is often hard to predict and plan for. It just happens, when it does. Also, the happiness logic is inverted in modern human societies – evolution gave us the happiness phenomenon to steer our behaviour towards survival and procreation. Now we are obsessed with that lever and we keep pulling on it – to titillate our senses, although we are well-fed and adequately procreated.

Exploration is a concrete and controllable agenda to pursue. It doesn’t prescribe a lot and doesn’t have too many ‘key result areas’. It asks a simple thing of its practitioners – avoid repeating and attempt to go through the new rather than the old.

One can of course be thoughtful about how and what to explore. But this can easily become mired in complex considerations which may masquerade as simple improvement of exploration but are really driven by the hidden agendas of the pleasure-seeking or novelty-fearing modules in one’s brain.

There is no major prescription. This is an attitudinal shift to bring about. This is also something to keep in mind to help liberate the brain from niggles of worries, angsts and so on – most of them quite irrelevant when seen from the exploratory point of view but major ones if one follows the modernist thought process of a purposeful life!

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