Opposition to the Opposite
by Michael Wilmot
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I had examined the dynamics involved with how things are measured in an essay titled “Oranges to Apples.” I had concluded that the act of measurement required a trinity of objects, the object to be measured, the comparison object and the standard to which you are measuring against. For example an apple can not be directly compared to an orange, but both may be compared to some third aspect such as firmness or flavor. I argued that without these three items there can be no measurement of which we can trust the answer or might lead us to truth.
It is also worth noting that we always compare something to the standard, and not the inverse. The boy is tall, not the tall is boy. We may say that a girl is beautiful, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we would never say that a girl is beauty. We might say she is the perfection of beauty, if our aim was to exaggerate a bit, but even in that extreme vernacular we still refer to her attributes as the perfect example of what beauty is.
We can assert with some confidence that there must be absolute, or perfect, standards of measure which exist even though our understanding of what perfection looks like is flawed. It is also true that those standards must exist in a state which is unaffected by the items which make use of them. In this way the state of any standard must exist outside of nature, and nature acts in submission to it.
Hence we will compare an orange to the state of being firm, and not the other way round. Firm can not be an orange, but an orange can be firm. How then can we tell exactly how firm an orange is if we have a flawed view into what perfect firmness is? Is it fully firm or somewhat less than, and if so to what extend does it fall off of that standard? How do we answer any of these questions?
We start with the perfect ideal of what firm is. For each of us that ideal may differ but what remains consistent is that we all have an ideal. It may take some discussion for us to translate what firmness means to each other, but whatever it is we will evaluate the orange to that standard, mentally knocking off points based on our examination of the orange. An orange which has been resting in the hot summer sun for hours might compare poorly to that standard indeed, so much so that we would be tempted to say that this particular orange is not firm at all, but something quiet different like wilted, or soggy.
And it is this evaluation I wish to place our minds against, for I suggest while there is indeed a standard of firm, there may be no standard of not-firm. This is a purely human construct devised not to apply value but to remove it completely. This is a quirky way our minds react to cases of failing to reach a standard, that instead of concluding that while that standard has not been reached, it could be with enough effort; we instead choose to believe the item is so far removed from the standard as to have joined a completely new one; an anti-standard.
I brushed up against this thought while on that previous essay, and I feel what went unsaid needs further examination along the topic of opposites. I stated that our standard of measure can exist on its own, without the need to also compare to the negative. For instance I can compare an orange to the aspect of round without also comparing it to the aspect of flat in order to determine if the orange is, in fact, round. The aspect of round can stand, on its own merit, in the examination of the orange. And then I began to wonder if opposites even exist at all or were they nothing more than human flights of fancy.
My first problem with the negative opposite of a standard is that it never reaches into the infinite. They are always finite. We have a never ending scale of increasing heat, but at absolute zero, 0 Kelvin or -273 degrees Celsius, all molecular motion ceases and this is as cold as cold can be. So while -272 degrees is still very cold, there remains a tiny bit of heat left to loose. We have not yet measured how bright light can be, however anyone that has spent time in a cave has experienced what total and utter darkness is, and how little light is required to cast shadows away.
Why the finite of a negative is a problem is that all standards must exist outside of nature to prevent nature from altering what the standard is. If I could change what the value of a one pound weight was, I would never have to feel the need for a diet, but anyone else who was interested in their weight would suddenly loose all bearing. The standards exist outside, but for the use, of nature. To be outside of nature is to be in the realm of the infinite, the land of God. And I can not imagine the finite and the infinite coexisting at the same moment and space of time. So if a finite negative exists and can not reside in either nature or outside of nature, where then can it be?
There is another problem I have with negative values, which is the lack of absolutes. Let us take the aspect of height in the value we call “tall”. In human terms tall might well be anyone over 7 feet, whereas a mountain may need to stretch thousands of feet to be considered a tall mountain. In this simple example we can see that the human ideal of what tall is changes based on the object for which it is being applied, but does this have any impact into the concept of tall? If we can say that there is such a thing as tall, what then would be the extreme end to what tall can be? Is there such a thing as a perfect or complete tall by which all other vertical objects can be compared against, or is this a purely human creation?
If there is a tall then we might logically suggest there must be a short which is its opposite much as cold is to hot, or dark is to light. As we look at the application of tall in language we can say that one thing is taller than another. For example the Rocky Mountains are taller than the Ozark but the tallest mountain is Mount Everest. In the same way we might say Sam is shorter than Jane, but Polly is the shortest in the class. In this way we apply degrees or a scale to the aspect tall which we then use in order to make comparative measurements. Without the concept of shorter or shortest we would be unable to negatively compare Sam to Jane.
Where this begins to breakdown is in the absence of absolutes. For while we might say Polly is the shortest in our class, this is true only so long as a person of shorter stature does not enter. Polly retains her status only in the absence of new evidence which leaves us wondering what the shortest measurement possible is, or if it exists at all. If a thing can not be measured at its extreme end then one might begin to wonder at what point it can be measured and where it can not. We could say that absolute short is the absence of tall, or a state where there is zero vertical scale.
But does the same type of reasoning apply to positive, or in this case to tall? I had asked earlier if there was a perfect example of what tall is, and I think that there is, although our flawed view into perfection requires that we create our own ideal of what perfection is. I have no problem visualizing what the perfect height means for a woman, mountain or tree. As I call each one to my mind I instantly am rewarded with an image of what I would hope to see in reality. But try as I might I can not do the same with short. And the reason for that, I believe is that short in itself is not perfect, and there can not be a perfect example of imperfection without creating a paradox.
There would seem to be a flaw in my logic when we are dealing with numerals and enter into the most significant challenge to this whole idea. A numeric line starts at base 0 and travels into the infinite, but in both directions. We may have as many negative numbers as positive ones. And if it is true that the opposite of 100 is equal to -100 then perhaps opposites do exist, and can even attract.
I think we need to begin, at the most logical place and that is the beginning which is base zero and ask a very simple question. How can something be less than nothing, and exist in reality? I have zero apples in my basket or I have some apples in my basket. But I have never seen a basket with less than zero apples. The only time this has any application is in the area of supply and demand, or in the evaluation of assets to liabilities. If I had promised Joe two apples and yet had none in my basket, I would be short two apples. I would be, in affect, two apples in the hole, or -2 apples.
However this is an irrational number that does not really exist, except as a way to measure expectations against reality. Expectations do not have any placement in nature as anything other than a mental projection of what reality should look like, but does not. Joe wants me to have two apples so that I might give them to him, but his desire does not really change my reality. I can, however, choose to begin a set of actions which can alter reality. For instance I can go purchase or pick more apples, but by doing this I have altered the trinity of measurement and we must begin the act of measuring all over again. And each time that my supply of apples alters, I must reevaluate what reality is.
We can resume this challenge again with a return to the difference between cold and heat and say that -273 degrees Celsius is a real value that can be measured on a scale, but my counter to this is that the scale is irrelevant to the true value of that temperature. The scale is an invention of human terms, and even in that there are two, Celsius and Fahrenheit of which man has yet to standardize upon. There is a true value, much like there is a true north, and there is the human measurement of that value. Just because humans say such in such is real, does not necessarily make it so. Such is the life of scientists whom exist in a world of ever changing answers to the same problems.
To catch up on where we are, let us review. Standards are real, and exist outside of nature in order to maintain their consistency. Measurements into the positive transcend into the infinite and negatives do not. In this we can see a perfect picture of the face of God as replicated in all of creation which is, the unchanging and infinite nature of God, expressed in the finite and valueless example of nature.
Nature is the realm of zero, the lack of value because its very purpose is to decline and to die. There are no examples of permanency, let alone long lasting, effects that any of us can point to in nature. Civilizations rose and fell without record, family lines lasting generations have ended, mountains once rising strong and proud into the skies have eroded or shifted. And as the wise King Solomon had wailed into the abyss “vanity! All is Vanity”; such is the truth of nature. And here is where, I believe, the human mind stepped in to ease the pain, or soften the harsh light of reality.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to think of yourself or life as having no value. I believe that those people that reach for the solution of suicide do so more often not out of self loathing, but of self devaluation. They do not see themselves as so horrible that they can no longer abide their existence, but that their existence no longer matters. I am not talking about self love or respect but of reaching a point where you see that nothing you do has any lasting impact. We stick our finger into the water, and leave no trace of having been there when we draw the finger back, and our life on this earth is exactly the same.
We are also imperfect, and dramatically so. We fail at everything if we give ourselves enough time at it, or at least feel that way. We sin, lie and act cowardly instead of valiantly speaking truth and following the will of God. And I just don’t think our human minds are designed to cope with the sheer power of that vision. To constantly see ourselves as failed bits of nothing is enough to drive all of us to the brink of self destruction. In order to cope with this we have created the idea of opposites as a way to give ourselves value, even if that value is negative.
When Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:9 “Not of works, lest any man should boast” we infer that we are warned not to speak about all of the good things we have done but this is only a partial view into scripture. We need also, perhaps more so, be wary of taking pride in our faults. Listen close to conversation that takes place human to human and you will find it centered more on what is wrong with us than in what is right.
I was on the train, not long ago, and had chance to hear two older women discuss their aches and pains. They, it seemed to me, were trying to out old each other for as one would speak about her poor back, the other would chime in with “Honey you aint old until your back and your knees hurt, like mine.” What was more interesting was the look of delight they had in the fellowship. Each new ache or pain would result in much shaking of heads and girlish laughter. They were old and damn proud of it too. And in a way we all do this, have done this or will do so in the future.
Christians also make this error in judgment in speaking about their relationship with Christ, or in the comparison of personal testimony. Hearing Christians reminisce over past sins is almost like listening to old soldiers rehash ancient battles. I have heard phrases like “Oh if you only knew what a sinner I was before I met Jesus” or “You don’t know what sin is until you came from where I was.” All of this activity is boasting, not of our good but of our bad because our bad is the only thing we had that was of any value. As if to say, “Look how far Jesus had to come to save me as compared to a little sinner like you.”
This feeling of being inadequate, insignificant, is also a serious hurtle to witnessing to the non Christian because now our aim is to reach a state of acceptance where only with Christ can you have any value at all. And to do that the non Christian must cast off all of the negative traits that they secretly covet and need to cope and take a leap of faith that somehow Christ will be sufficient to fill the gap in their lives. It is a leap that, tearfully, too many find impossible to make.
Copyright © Michael Wilmot June 2006
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