On life and certainty


I found out today that David Foster Wallace had committed suicide. Which is very sad. I wasn’t a huge fan of his work, in fact, I was never able to make it through “Infinite Jest” even though I had a friend who swore that it was one of the best books ever written. I couldn’t read a thousand page book, even if several hundred of that were just footnotes. It did make it into Time’s list of top 100 English novels, but apparently I am just not appreciative enough. There was one thing though that David Foster Wallace wrote that even I can appreciate as a truly great piece of work, and that is his commencement speech that he gave at Kenyon College in May 21st 2005. In his commencement speech he talks about education being all about experience and awareness. It is about taking the time to consciously experience life, and by doing so, realizing that there are other people that are around us as well.

The talk now seems a little bit empty knowing that he killed himself, but I think that some of the most basic concepts that he put forth still ring true for me. And so I am going to share a little excerpt of his address that I think that we, especially in the software community, should read and take to heart.

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.'” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

As software developers we are often living in a world of 1s and 0s, Trues and Falses. We like to build our concept of what is right and wrong, correct and incorrect, based on this same black and white logic. The reality is that this world is not clean cut, right and wrong, true or false. Life is full of half-truths and gray areas. Everyone we have worked with has different backgrounds and different experiences. We have to account for this, and try to see things from other people’s perspectives.

Try to take a bit of time each day to challenge your own assumptions. Look at things that you accept fully and truly ask yourself if you have a basis for your beliefs. You may find that you lack a basis for some of your beliefs, and in doing so, you may find some. And that is excellent, you will be better and stronger for it. You may also find that some of your beliefs are unfounded. The important thing is to realize that someone else is not necessarily wrong just because they don’t agree with you, which is sadly a jump that I, and many others, are too quick to make.

Anyways, enough of me and my soapbox. I will now return you to your regularly scheduled program.

If you want to read the entire talk, here is a link to the top result from Google. I hope that the link stays up.

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