Saturday, 9 February 2013

An essay: life as a game of ultra-pool

Normally, I'm circumspect about explaining my worldview, because it makes one extremely vulnerable to the 'now-ness' of life experience. What I understand now is not necessarily what I will understand in a few minutes, once I've internalised a couple new points on a seemingly infinite list of realisations.

That disclaimer aside - I hope I don't hate myself for writing this a few minutes after I publish - let's get to the killer hook: you're just a pool ball (also known as a billiard ball), with no more ultimate responsibility than a piece of ice breaking off an iceberg and beaning a poor old eskimo on the head. Of course it's not just that simple, or else this wouldn't be an 'essay' ... bear with me if you want your mind blown.

Let's first start with a major admission about myself: my single mother raised me in a religious (Christian) manner, and although my serious doubts about some glaring inconsistencies with formal religion saw me leaving the church in my early twenties, I didn't reject everything about that experience. Specifically, I've always retained a feeling that there is a God, or Creator, or whatever sort of name you'd like to call Him or Her or ... you get the picture.

Now, before all the atheists reading this immediately dart for the 'close page' button, this story is not an attempt to convert you with a soppy religious ending. At least, not in the traditional manner you hate, so just bear with me.

Here's one of the many things which the Bible couldn't explain for me: "I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please." (Isaiah 46:10)

This was one of those scary parts of the Bible. If God knew the end from the beginning, what personal choice did I have? How was that even possible, if I *did* have personal freedom? Also, what did it mean for the church's insistence that I had to 'Do The Right Thing' - surely if God knew the end from the beginning, it was already a closed book what I'd do or not? Shouldn't the church rather be exhorting people to 'Be who God made you, and let's hope that it's a smooth ride'? 

It's just one of the many contradictions contained in the Bible, and one of the many areas where maybe the church has its hands tied: formal religion is very much a 'condensed wisdom for the masses', and so long as it helps some people get through life a little bit happier then it can't be all bad. Those who will question will do so regardless, and I've always been one of 'those'.

To take a quick detour now, have you ever watched the original Men In Black movie? Do you recall that scene where the camera keeps zooming out, and it is revealed that our entire Universe is just a marble in a game being played by children? And, just to add insult to injury, that specific marble was hanging from a cat's collar in 'our' reality? It was a pretty far-out concept for a mainstream sci-fi comedy, but maybe that's why they left it just for the closing credits sequence.

Getting to my worldview, marbles would be a good analogy to describe it, but because I prefer playing a good game of pool - that's the one with the green table, the multicoloured balls and the sticks which you hit the balls with - let's use pool instead.

Ok, 'ultra-pool'. For me, this concept explains a lot of things. Something I've struggled with before has been the philosophical debates I've seen stating that if you know every possible motivating factor in a person's life, you can perfectly predict their every action. A part of me has always wanted to rebel against that theory, but for whatever reason I feel more comfortable dealing with it through the lens of pool.

I can play pool, measure the angle of my cue, pick a spot to hit the white ball at, judge some intended direction for the ball and its subsequent interactions with the other balls on the table, and how gauge how much force I should apply. If I get it all right, I sink a ball. If I get it wrong, the ball jumps, my opponent gets two shots and my friends have a good laugh at my expense.

Given that on the micro-scale of pool I can enjoy the predictable reactions of pool balls in a closed system, I really need to snap out of my refusal to accept the same principle when applied on a universal scale. As I've touched on above, however, the main reason I petulantly refuse to want to believe in this is because of the implications this concept has for my life. It does explain a lot though.

Now might be a good time to go back to explaining why I believe there is a God. On the most basic level, it's because it's always felt right to me. To use another biblical quote which has summed this up for me (I know, I use a lot of quotes for a guy who claims to have snapped away from formal religion): "You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts." (2 Corinthians 3:3)

My rational mind has also taken a crack at explaining that belief, and it's something along the lines of "Energy cannot be created or destroyed." We recognise that in any closed system, nothing can be added or taken away - only converted from one form to another. This is according to my high school physics teacher, and Newton I believe. Well, the Universe is pretty much the ultimate closed system, so I won't be the first to ask the question of just where the matter which supposedly resulted in the 'Big Bang' came from, if nothing can be created from nothing.

If I see my world, then, as a series of pool balls striking into one another, and myself as a pool ball on that table, can't I also see God leaning over the table behind me at my birth, gauging just how much spin to apply to me before giving me the biggest poke in the world with an almighty cue? You must admit, there are a few variables we're given at birth which are potentially controllable: the country of our birth, our parents, their wealth and beliefs, the people we come into contact with, our personality (which is evident even in babies).

As another aside, this is why I've never believed that Hell exists. It would just be too unfair. If I was born in a desert in Pakistan, might I not also have been raised to hate America and one day strap a bomb vest on to sacrifice my life for a greater cause? You'd have to admit, my life chances would not be quite the same as somebody raised in the middle of the United States 'Bible Belt', raised with apple pie and Christianity. No, Hell doesn't exist (although our lives could well be hell on earth).

Haven't you noticed in your life that completely unexpected people and situations pop into it, almost as violently as a pool ball bashing into another pool ball? That there are coincidences which are just too neat, which cannot be explained by chance or good luck? Alternatively, there are moments in my life where I feel as if I'm just floating across the pool table, bouncing off the edges and nothing is really happening ... until something does, and I later realise that I was just being set up for the most amazing multi-ball combo trickshot ever.

To go right back to the initial root cause for this blog, I wanted to go to Romania because I am married to a Romanian woman. How I ended up like that is one of those particularly long chains of coincidences which I couldn't possibly have predicted, but mostly because I cannot see all the positions of all the pool balls in the world. For the sake of further personal admission and supporting my claim, let me just take another detour into my life for your entertainment.

- My grandfather, the most amazing man in my life, gave me the money I needed while broke at University to buy my first-ever laptop (he died just before I left University and could repay that specific loan - which made the laptop all the more poignant for me).
- It turned out this laptop had Wi-Fi connectivity, but that meant nothing to me in my little University town. I didn't utilise any Wi-Fi networks, instead connecting my first 3G-cellphone to use it as a modem for internet access. It was expensive, however, so I just left internet access to the University computers.
- When I left University, I found myself all alone in the idyllic coastal town of Knysna, working in my first job at a newspaper. It just so happened that Knysna was one of the first towns in the whole country to get a free Wi-Fi network supported by the municipality across the whole town. Even better, all you had to do to access this Wi-Fi network was register as a resident of Knysna, and you got the princely sum of 500MB Internet connectivity completely free a month.
- That Wi-Fi network, which just happened to have been installed just prior to my moving to Knysna, came to be my only affordable means of obtaining a private internet connection. When my 500MB was exhausted I could just about afford to buy top-up vouchers of 100MB a pop ... something I could never have afforded to with cellphone data connectivity still ridiculously expensive at the time, and me only on a journalist's salary.
- Being lonely, bored and technically-literate with an internet connection, I came to spend the evenings discovering the wonderful world of Internet Relay Chat (about 15 years after everybody else did, but oh well). Trivia channels, where a computer script asks predetermined questions and anybody who logs in from across the world can answer and score points came to be a small addictive hobby. Firstly, the novelty of being connected with the Whole World through the internet was great. Secondly, some of the people in the Whole World and also online were pretty interesting.
- My future wife, as you'll have guessed, was one of those people. Against all odds, she just happened to be in the same trivia channel that I was, when I stumbled into it from the other side of the world. We happened to start talking. The rest is history.

There are countless such stories from my life, if I think about it closely enough. Yours too, I'm sure. To sit here and think that if my grandfather hadn't loaned me that money, if I didn't buy a laptop that happened to support Wi-Fi, if I didn't happen to move to Knysna, if Knysna didn't happen to have that free network, if I didn't happen to discover IRC, if my wife wasn't in *that* trivia channel ... I wouldn't have a wife now, or at least not her ... it's pretty sobering. We talk about 'romance', but it's not just that, is it? 

Ok then, so what does it mean? If we're all pool balls, can we stop? I'd say that the analogy makes it clear that you cannot, which ties amazingly neatly into my earlier post where I was frustrated by my inability to walk out of my story, just like the movie Rango warned me (having life truths reported by animated cartoon characters really bites). 

If pool balls were sentient, it wouldn't matter a bit: the system in which they operate means they respond precisely and consistently to a fixed number of inputs, and they cannot just choose to take a left turn or stop. Thank goodness, or pool would be a much more difficult game to play!

What that realisation really tells me is that if I, upon realising all of this, decide to quit my job and become a buddhist monk - because what does it all matter, anyway? - it still wouldn't be 'my decision' any more than which direction the pool ball takes is its decision. It just means I was aimed that way, and it's part of my life journey.

How do I feel about this? Don't think it makes me 'happy'. I don't think anybody sets out life deciding that they want to just be a rolling ball down the hill, but it's not necessarily all bad. In previous debates online I've asked whether, as a hammer is created for the purpose of banging nails into walls, a sentient hammer would or even should feel disappointed with its creation?

At this specific point, there are numerous divergent thoughts ricocheting in my own head like so many pool balls. I've come this far that I may as well share them with you.

What does 'ultra-pool' theory help us understand about our lives? Well, it explains why categories of behaviour exist. It explains that moment we get when we're in a crowd and we think, 'You know, strip away all the preferences for food and music and we're all just the same.' It explains why shrewd detectives can extrapolate criminals' personalities from their crime-scenes with a scary amount of accuracy.

One of my earliest 'religious' breakthroughs was the following thought: "The world is, therefore God is. I am, therefore God has a plan for me." It just made sense at the time that if I was created, I was created for a reason. Even a child doodling away on paper with crayons is a creator in his or her own right, and has some intention for the artwork being created.

When I hear about people who die 'before their time' - like children who die or people murdered through crime - I'm saddened just like everybody else, but I also take a moment to wonder about the lasting impact that their lives have had on the people around them, and comforted by the realisation that if they had to choose between living a short life or not living at all, they would have chosen life. 

To use the pool analogy for these people, it's like a pool ball being shot into the pocket. It danced across the table, connected with other balls, left the scene of play and yet its energy lives on through the table: all the balls it pushed into trajectories they would never have gone into without it. I've seen moments like that in my life: social interactions I've come away from thinking that it's a good thing I was there at the time. Arguments defused, people comforted, solutions raised: me bringing my own special brand of magic to the table, which interacted with other people and resulted in something unpredictable (to me) and beautiful in its complexity.

I just have two last thoughts for you. The one is de ja vu. Many of us experience this: the uneasy feeling that we've experienced whatever we're experiencing before. I've read a couple of theories about it - e.g. the one involving some sections of the brain processing stimuli faster than other parts of the brain and resulting in that feeling - but couldn't 'ultra-pool' explain this as well?

If you look at it a different way, when you experience de ja vu you aren't feeling as if you've been here before, but you're rather experiencing that you are precisely where you're meant to be. It's the feeling a pool ball gets after it is struck and it shoots directly towards another ball: you have some sense of where you're going and when you have arrived.

The poetic/religious side of my brain likes to think that maybe just before we're born, we're shown the full trajectory of our lives. God leans over the pool table, asks, "Are you ready?" Then whacks us into the fray. Heck, it's a lot better than the old cliche about reviewing your whole life just before you die, isn't it?

One last thought comes from a story my grandfather told me. One day a scientist was looking down through his microscope at a molecule, when he put on a stronger lens and zoomed in closer and could see the molecule at its atomic structure. Then he zoomed in to analyse the atoms, and each looked like a little Universe. He zoomed in further still, until individual planets resolved. Then he zoomed into one which looked like earth, and then he could see his country, his town, his house ... and he could see a scientist, looking down intensely into a microscope.

It's exactly the same idea as the 'Universe in a marble' idea from Men In Black I mentioned near the start. Everything we have, wrapped up in itself.

How does that tie into 'ultra-pool' theory? Well, I'll share with you what my grandfather had to say about life after death. He'd say, "I don't know what's there, but I think we're all going to be surprised." He's there now, and I for one sincerely hope that it's been a pleasant surprise.

This is me, pool ball # 9838388289290299388472. This is my world-view, for now. It may well have changed in ten minutes, or tomorrow. Or it may well be something which explains the rest of my life, and everybody else's lives. Including yours. Only time will tell, and maybe we'll discuss it oneday, on this pool table or later in the pocket. We'll have all of time and nowhere to go then.


  1. Everything is wrapped up in itself, I like that. I'm a firm believer that everything is pretty much interconnected and this is why random 'coincidences' happen. There is too much interconnectedness for events not to 'meet' every so often.

    If I may, though, I'd like to offer another perspective to some of the things you mentioned. What can I say, the publishing of this essay opens many a door.

    The Isaiah quote, regarding God's knowledge of all events at all times is a good start. On the surface, the statement does conflict with the nature of our existence vis-a-vis our free will. But there's something to it, and it's all in our perception.
    We can agree that we use only a fraction of our brain's full capacity. In which case we know that there must be a lot that we're missing and that, to a higher being, that which we call 'rationality' is potentially laughable. So, while our perception of time is linear (chronological), does this mean it really is so?
    I realize this leads to more questions than answers, but if time is not actually linear but rather a sort of all encompassing universe into which we're all born, living, and dying in the same 'frame', then it does answer the question pretty clearly; God sees and knows what will happen, but as you live your life, the images/outcomes are constantly changing. Maybe one moment you die in a car crash and the next in your sleep as an old man -all depending on the choices you make on a day to day basis. Ironically, Men in Black (the latest one) illustrates this pretty well at the end; K's tip at the Diner spelled the difference between an asteroid collision and a happy ending. If you look at it this way, then you'd better believe that 'doing the right thing' makes a big difference and that God's plan for us matters.

    As for the analogy about the Middle East, I have to disagree about a couple of things.
    1) It doesn't make the existence of Hell 'unfair'. Sure it can be harder to live there,in many ways, much like it's harder to be a working class person in Romania than in the US, but no matter where one is born, strapping on a suicide vest, or otherwise stripping value from human life is a conscious and personal decision that couldn't possibly depend on any human variables. Particularly if the rules are "written on tablets of human hearts".
    2) This is a very separate discussion in itself - heaven and hell can't simply be embodiments of green pastures and boiling cauldrons. In the context of what God is (Love, 1 John 4:8), it would simply be enough for them to be places that are either full or void of this Love. Maybe, as humans, this doesn't seem like much, but for our souls, created out of God's love, the complete absence of Love for eternity must indeed be hell.

    Thanks for the read!

    1. Well done on being brave enough to tackle the post, Matt. I don't know if anybody else has, lol. To relate to your points, I've often made it just to tweak atheists: I'll note that an ant will never understand quantum mechanics, so we need to accept that there will simply be things which we can never understand no matter how much we study. Things like the Big Bang, for example. Or your concept of interconnected time. I file all of these things into my grandfather's 'We'll be surprised' belief.

      If I can relate something I've recently become sensitive towards, it's driving and the related dangers. I'll be driving and then feel a twinge of pain in my chest or one of my legs, and immediately drive more carefully. I like to think that it's an impending reality drawing closer to 'my' reality, if I don't drive slower I may be involved in an accident. Superstition? Definitely!

      Regarding your objection to my use of "Hell" I agree, I was just emphasising for effect. The underlying point still stands though: for those people who are raised completely out of touch with the 'Christian' way of life (nowhere near churches, missionaries or even TV), are they to be condemned to an after-life in Hell because they couldn't learn about Jesus and what they're meant to do with their lives? I mean, the Bible is pretty adamant: there is no way to Heaven but through Jesus. So really, it's a single case study which disproves the whole system: a loving God could never create a rule of such complete exclusion towards the innocent, and therefore the concept of Hell (or at the very least its connection to formal religion) doesn't exist. That's before we start plumbing the contradictions in the Bible, and that's one debate I'm happy to steer well clear of.

      The gist of my post is that it's possible (and I like to think recommended) to embrace quasi-religious views (if a belief in God is considered religious) without following any formal religion or being lumped into a Mother Earth cult.