Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Difference Between Experience and Theory

Some people claim that intellectual knowledge is just as good as experiential knowledge, that you don't have to actually practice what you preach to be considered a credible source of advice. That there is little difference between being able to describe how to do something, and actually doing it. That theoretical knowledge is a sufficient substitute for experience.

I really couldn't disagree more.

To me the whole point of a theory is practical application. Certainly both philosophy and practice are important, but I would have to say that experience is even more important than theory, because without practical application, all your theories are little more than unsubstantiated fantasies.

The whole point of brainstorming ideas, of proposing speculative theories, is testing them, and putting them into action, otherwise what's the point? Life is about living, doing, implementing, interacting, not about daydreaming in isolation.

For instance, if you are thirsty, you don't go read a book about water, or visualize a picture of water in your mind, and expect that to quench your thirst. If you read about water, or think about water, you do so for the purpose of helping you actually find water, or to improve your relationship with water (how to find it, purify it, store it, use it); and unless you actually apply this information to the real world, you will die of thirst.

No amount of theorizing on its own has the power to sustain or enhance life. The value of anything depends on whether or not you find it useful. Does it add value to your life? Does it help you in anyway?

Real world experience and the practical application of ideas, is the only thing giving an idea substance, the only thing giving an idea life. An idea is like a seed, and the experiential application of the idea is like a seed bearing fruit. Unless an idea is actually applied, it remains barren, like a disembodied spirit without a body.

If all you do is understand things on an intellectual level, without ever actually applying the things you know experientially, your life will remain very much like that seed that does not bear fruit.

I'll give you another example.

Imagine there are two little boys who both dream of someday riding a bicycle.

1. One day one of the boys is given a bicycle. He rides his bicycle all the time all over the place, to such an exent that he becomes quite an expert cyclist. Not only does he ride his bicycle well, but he knows what foods and drinks provide the most efficient fuel for his body, he knows how to fix his bicycle, how to maintain it, how to prevent it from getting stolen, and also how to travel well over any terrain and in any weather, in the city, in the country, off road, uphill, over long distances, and riding with traffic. Everything he needs to know about bicycles, he learned from riding his bicycle. He may have paged through a few books on bicycle repair, but only through the trial and error practice of actually working on his bicycle and riding it, did he actually learn how to fix his bicycle and ride it well.

2. The other boy did not get a bicycle, but instead he got a pile of books about bicycles. So he read them all and became quite an expert on the subject, memorizing everything that he read. You could ask him any question about bicycles, and most likely he could answer it. Except that the ideas were not really his own, he was just repeating what he read, as he still hadn't actually road a bicycle himself. He hadn't even seen one in person, only pictures and descriptions in a book is the closest he ever got to one. His knowledge of bicycles was very much like a blind man describing color after being told what to say, but because his memory was so good, he spoke like someone who knew what he was talking about.

Who knew bicycles better? The person who actually road them, or the person who only read about them?

Isn't it fucking obvious?

The major difference between these two ways of knowing bicycles, is that one is a spectator, the other is a participant.

One is based on fantasy, the other is based on reality.

Both intellectual theory and practical experience go hand in hand, it's helpful to have both, but the whole point of knowing about something is putting it into practice; otherwise without doing it, you're engaging in little more than a fantasy.

The boy who knows all about bicycles from having read about them, but who has never actually rode one before, can't actually call himself a cyclist. He could call himself an expert in bicycle history and trivia, but he will never be a cyclist until he actually rides a bike.

It's all well and good to speculate upon things, to contemplate abstract philosophical concepts, but unless you can actually apply it to your life in some way, to put the philosophy or theory into practice, it's like doing nothing at all, and where is the value in that?

A person possessing intellectual knowledge without experience, is like someone looking into a reflection of reality as an outside observer, but not actually participating in it. Like watching a dance, but not dancing; like reading about bicycles, but not actually riding one. It's not the same thing. To know something you must participate with it. Trying to do otherwise, is like describing the taste of fruit, based on what you have read about it, without ever tasting it yourself. It's fake. It's hollow. It's like a blind man accurately describing color without ever seeing it for himself, because he's memorized someone else's description of it.

The point is that there is a substantial difference between knowing things from experience and knowing them from a theoretical perspective, and that the only thing that really makes ideas come alive, is when they are applied.

Failure to apply any idea, to demonstrate its practical value to the world (and practical in this sense does not only mean utilitarian, but is anything that adds personal value to your life, including entertainment and the arts) is an indication that you are engaging in a fruitless pursuit, a form of intellectual flatulence. Unfortunately there seems to be a lot of that going around lately, especially here in blog land. If you like gas, all the power to you, otherwise maybe you ought to try something else.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Been thinking about running lately. I’ve walked ten miles, road my bike 30 miles, but I’ve never run longer than one mile at a stretch. For all my talk about being into fitness, that’s kind of pathetic, huh? A mile run is basically a walk in the park. Not much of an accomplishment. It’s more of a warm up exercise for more experienced runners. Why haven’t I run further? I guess I’ve seen no point in doing it. Haven’t had the need or the desire. Felt more comfortable walking. Yeah there was pain and weakness after a mile of running, but I saw no incentive for getting past that and being able to go the distance. Five miles. Ten miles. Twenty miles. Fifty miles.

But considering that I don’t drive, have no plans of ever driving, and prefer to get around through the power of my own locomotion as much as possible, being able to run further makes practical sense. Sometimes riding my bike isn’t a good option. Mechanical problems can be a hassle, and the worry of my bicycle getting stolen may be a legitimate deterrent from taking it certain places. I walk, but walking is slow. Walking is like traveling on cruise control, while running is like your natural born acceleration. We’re both natural born walkers and runners, the two complement one another; the only difference is in the speed of our movement. Running is faster. Walking is slower.

When you need to travel faster and further, running is much more efficient than walking. If speed and distance is not a priority, walking can be a much more relaxing experience, where it’s like going on a leisurely sightseeing stroll. You can see the sights while running too, but when you need to see more, to be more aware of and immersed in your surroundings, you need to move slower. You can only process so much at a time, and the faster you move, the less time you have to focus on one single thing. I usually stop a lot on my walks, to smell the roses, so to speak. I do the same when I run; to really listen, you need to be still.

The only reason why I haven’t attempted to run further in the past is that I saw zero utilitarian value in doing so. I’m not interested in the sport aspect of running. I have absolutely no interest in racing, running faster, or beating records of time or distance. And the health benefits can be obtained in other ways; weight training, calisthenics, aerobics. But I now see that running does in fact have a utilitarian value. It’s about getting places. It’s a viable means of transportation. I never even thought it would be possible to run to the Pacific Ocean from where I live. It was news to me when I recently discovered that the Hopi Indians of Arizona used to run not only to California, but all the way down to the southern tip of Mexico, averaging 100 miles a day. I didn’t even know that it was possible to run 100 miles in a day, let alone running a thousand miles in a week and a half. That’s pretty cool.

I had no idea about the history of long distance running among the native Americans, and other indigenous tribes around the world. It’s fascinating to me. The trick is learning how to run long distances without injuring yourself in the process. That’s what I need to work on. Not sure I’ll be running a 100 miles in a day, but now that I see a practical value for it, I think I need to add long distance running to the repertoire of my skills. Even if I only use running as a tool for scouting out new places to walk and to sit, it’s a good skill to have.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

As if You Were Dying

Easter Island Statue
"Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case." -- Annie Dillard, The Writing Life.

Another way of putting this, would be to live each day as if it were your last; to seize the day, to make the most of whatever time you have.

If you are dying, there is no time for procrastination, no time to wait around for a better time, another day, another year; there is only today, so it's got to happen now or never. But that is only true to some extent. What you want, may not be possible today. If it is dry, and you yearn for the rain, no amount of yearning is going to make it rain if the conditions are not ripe for rain. So what it means is that you make the best of what you've got, and you make the attempt for what you want, today, to the best of your ability. If you want rain, you don't wait around for the rain to come to you, you come to it.

That's good advice, but it's much easier said than done.

In this quote she is directing her advice to writers, to look upon yourself and your audience as dying, as having limited time, so you've got to really make the most of it. Perhaps this is it. Last day on earth, for me and you. Is this really the last thing I want to say? Is this really the last thing you want to read? Is this really it? Is this really the best we can do?

Shit, that's a lot of pressure. Don't think I can follow her advice, completely, but I do appreciate the sentiment. No, I hope you spend you last hours offline. The last place in the world I would ever want to be in my final hour is on my computer. I'm a gambler though, so this is my crap shot, racing against time, trying to beat the odds.

But what Dillard says is a reminder how extremely precious each of our lives are, yours and mine both, that there really is no time to waste on being mediocre. That we really need to make the most of it as soon as possible. Pay attention. Breath deeply. Smile widely. Be excellent. Be passionate. Be courageous. Be honest.

Is it possible that having all the time in the world, gives you all the more time to waste on trivial pursuits? That the more time you think you have left, the more likely you will waste  your time, and not give it your 100 percent.

So, the advice to live as if you were dying, is not telling you to give up and to stop living, but it's telling you to live more. It is a reminder to be more mindful of each moment, to make the most of each experience, and to never take life for granted. Because death is like your shadow, that is always with you, is like your personally appointed judge and guide, watching your every move, just waiting for you to slip up, and to sneak up on you and tap you on your shoulder when you least expect it.

Death XIII Tarot Card