Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Rest vs. Stagnation

As I write this, I am at home during the coronavirus pandemic. Over this same pandemic, I have also been recovering from some mental health problems. I feel like this extended time spent mostly in the same place has been good. I probably would have chosen this if there hadn't been a pandemic. At the same time, though my situation is not really the most confined, I sometimes feel some kind of cabin fever. If I sit still, I rest. But I can also feel like I need to move, if I sit still long enough. And sometimes I am a slave to my sitting still, and find I can hardly will to move, though it occurs to me to try to will it.

If civilization lasts long enough, it will become sustainable. There are two endpoints: sustainability, or death. I think it is likely that a sustainable civilization will have to be mostly static. If things change too much, our ability to be physically sustainable to a sufficient degree could be threatened. And as time goes on, the possibilities of discovering new ideas for what a culture can be will be exhausted. I wonder if we have exhausted many or even most of them already, most rapidly in the last 200 or 300 years. So we may find ourselves settling on one final culture, having seen what there is to see, and there may not be much change or novelty left.

"Static" can imply both "restful" and "stagnant". So if this final culture is a restful one, that's one thing, and if it's stagnant, that's another. Ordinarily, rest is a positive thing. And stagnation is a negative thing. So we would want to seek rest, rather than stagnation.


There are only two endpoints, when we're talking about position, but when we're talking about rate of change, there is a third. In other words, there are three stable ways of life which can in principle be extended nearly to infinity: death, sustainability, and endless growth. Endless growth is one way to flee stagnation. It requires an endless supply of space to grow into. We could colonize an infinite universe, and never learn to rest.

Could there somehow be endless cultural growth? Perhaps if we're talking about cultural artifacts, such as movies or books, we could be engineered to have new senses and new emotions, so that we could still have new things. If people can be modified without boundary, we may be able to have all kinds of new experiences. (Modifying people without boundary is dangerous, as well.) But would society be different? Or would we all have settled into a pattern where everything was arranged optimally and we lived in experience machines, or their equivalents? A planet could spread its "optimal plus experience machine" culture to some other planet -- maybe they have to adjust to the atmosphere on the new planet, which is different than the ones they've had to deal with before. But most people on the home world will just be keeping things going. Will there be faster than light travel or communication? If not, then each planet will be isolated from the others. There will be a pull toward stasis on each planet, even if space colonization gives some reason for a minority to do something somewhat novel.

But as we get better at colonizing planets, the risk and therefore the novelty will be sanded away. We may get into patterns of "Yet another planet. Might as well stay home and plug into the experience machine instead." And much of the process could be automated, once we get good at it. So society and its people could be faced with the question: stagnation, or rest? A sure and steady and effective program of endless growth is its own kind of stasis. It's a formula. Some people will realize this, if enough of us aren't completely immersed in the experience machine.


Can we find rest in an experience machine? Perhaps. A crude kind of experience machine (watching YouTube or Netflix, reading novel after novel) tends to produce stagnation. But we can imagine that a really good experience machine wouldn't. At least, we could provide the experience of rest in an experience machine. But perhaps rest vs. stagnation is not just about experience, but also about objective reality. So if I am lying on the couch all the time, it doesn't matter what my virtual reality headset has going, I'm not moving. If I am not risking something or trusting something as a person, then every action or romance "holodeck program" I experience adds up to zero -- it doesn't cost me anything, doesn't make me confront anything. Everything it accomplishes it erases with the resolution of the plot; or the return to the experience machine to choose another experience is its own final plot point -- "it was all a dream".

Isn't rest vulnerable to the same criticism as stagnation? When you rest, don't you lie down on the couch just as much? What are the dangers of stagnation? One is that you don't grow enough. Another is that you are not open enough. You can never be receptive to the best if you aren't open to it. So you will be unable to experience the best if you are stagnant. If you are stagnant and satisfied with stagnation, that is the worst. "The best" could be some kind of superlative. "Greater bliss, that no man has ever known" is the goal of some. But "the best" could be "getting to live, at all". Depth and reality sand away the fakeness in all who will consent to be sanded, and thus it is possible for them to be really real, and thus continue to exist forever. So we could say that stagnation leads to death, but rest is eternal life. So, many of us have not experienced true rest, and are either satisfied with stagnation or are attempting to run away from it.

Stagnation is when something that needs to move isn't moving, and it becomes (or remains) fake, sick, or even deadly. Rest is when something doesn't need to move.


It looks like we're headed to some kind of stasis -- on our current trajectory, maybe toward total immersion in the experience machine, and if feasible, space colonization. Will that stasis be rest, or stagnation? Or perhaps a deletion of what it means to be human, a destruction of personhood through the end of meaningful choices, risks, and trustings? That's yet another possibility -- maybe conscious stagnation, for all its downside, has the upside of being a choice, which we could reject. But we could become apersonal, atrophying whatever it is that makes us who we are, so that we are experiencing machines, in symbiosis with the experience machine.

In order to really rest as a civilization and as individuals, we have to take care of all the outstanding issues. We need to have achieved perfection -- in other words, become actually good. What are the actual issues remaining?


Yet, you can feel rest as rest, when you're resting. It's like how you can see the meaning and validity in the objects you directly perceive. Rest really is restful. But if we stay in repose long enough, we find ourselves in a new moment, where if we are sensitive, we will realize that we are beginning to stagnate. Stagnation is really stagnant -- we experience that directly, and find ourselves either enslaved to it, or running away from it, working away from it.

A stagnant pond is not flowing. So if we are really restful, there will be some kind of motion within us, or flowing into us from an outside source, and flowing out of us, away from us. A pond can sit perfectly still, and yet not be stagnant, because the water moves. A pond is not at rest when the flow within it is turbulent, but when the flow is laminar, it can be.

No comments:

Post a Comment