The grand slap

When I play pool, I can estimate the path of the ball I hit with the cure. I can see where the white ball will go, where the ball the white ball hits will go, and maybe guess the path and effects caused by the consequent collisions. I can’t do much more than that. See, it’s not that it is impossible to model the higher order effects, it’s just that we don’t have the required apparatus.

Imagine that the pool table I’m playing on has no friction. When I hit a ball, and when that ball collides with another, the energy is preserved. Trying to calculate what will happen—where the balls are, what path they’re on—after a few minutes of movement and collisions becomes a computational nightmare.

I often think of this when I consider our attempts at “progress”, “improvement” and “understanding”. To me it is clear that the complexity of the world we live in vastly outweighs the machinery we have on hand to interpret, predict and alter it. But what is also becoming clear as I age is that there is something which greatly outstrips the meagre vastness of our intellect and the great complexity of the universe—our ego.

I will not say that our attempts at understanding and action are impotent. No. For example, as someone recently pointed out on Twitter, we can learn in a few minutes what a hundred years ago it took someone a lifetime to figure out (an example of compression progress). But I will say that we continually overestimate our capacity for effective intervention, even in the face of evidence that tells us otherwise.

The Universe is smarter than us; how grand does the slap to the face have to be for us to awake from the dream that it isn’t?