Philosophers Fingerpainting and Ballerinas Coding: A Celebration of Consilience

When I graduated high school I decided not to go to college. My friends, with stars in their eyes and scholarships in tow, looked at me sideways when I told them I wouldn’t be joining them.

The bulletin board in the library of my small, private school showed the plans of each senior after graduation. A majority of the names grandly circled the category “University.” A smattering of others respectably gathered around “International Service.” Then there was my name, hovering ostentatiously by the all too dubious category “Other.”

Not to be deterred, I decided to stay home and pay my parents back for everything they had done for me for the first 18 years of my life. I would do all the dishes, wash all the laundry and cook all the meals. A fittingly grand gesture to cover-up my lackluster expectations for the future.

Once my friends went off to college, I got to work. In the first two months, I perfected the art of baking bread from scratch, volunteered at a local bookstore and auditioned for the local theatre. I was feeling pretty great about my decision–no need for school for this boy!

So inevitably, on a terribly gray day, sitting in the bookstore flipping through a vintage issue of Spiderman, it occurred to me that I really did miss school. I’ve never been one for stubbornness, so it took about two minutes to convince myself I ought to go to college.

Applying to the liberal arts college in my city was simple enough, save for one awfully heavy decision. What was I going to major in?

Looking back now, the question seems quaint–an adorable quandary with the guise of gravitas. But at the time, my hazy assumption was that launching into a “major” in college meant the doors of your chosen society burst open wide for you and the world greets you as a professional.

“Welcome initiate. Ah! I see you’ve majored in [your major]! Your life path shall now include doing [your major] while earning [money/respect/fame]. If you stare across this wide chasm you can see [other majors] earning [money/respect/fame] doing [other majors].”

So I chose to major in Theatre. Though I was deeply interested in biology, computer science, math, philosophy and psychology, I could never imagine counting myself among the sullied ranks of the “undeclared” majors, so I stuck with it. The maze of life was laid before me and I chose my path and started running. Sure, I peeked over at other paths, but I never took a step backwards. I was headed toward the professional realm of theatre and that was that.

Problem is, I was working off of a model of professional development that now feels obsolete. This worldview of diverging paths leading toward ultimate professions is becoming less and less relevant. It may still be somewhat in tact for people born into familial dynasties: a celebrity with celebrity children, a service worker with service worker children.

If trade schools beget trade workers, what do liberal arts schools beget? Confused artists. Instead of a maze with one entrance and one exit, life had transformed into a Jackson Pollack painting of opportunity, failure and wondrous pipe dreams.

And you know what? Life still feels like that.

So for a stupefied millennial caught between a past generation of people with hard skills and an ever-shifting vision of the future, sculpting a “career path” feels like an act of futility. Instead of asking “what should we do?”, I choose instead to ask “how shall I live?” Perhaps too philosophical to be practical, but by answering the latter, the former may follow.

Now comes the time for my attempt at a metaphorical leap of faith: If the question on the table is “how shall I live?”, what if we use a scientific concept to answer a philosophical question?

Enter “consilience”.

Consilience is primarily a scientific term for strengthening a proof by providing diverse sets of evidence. For instance, if we ask “how fast is that car going?” we could provide evidence from a speedometer, a radar gun and a calculation of distance divided by time. All three ought to provide the same answer through different means of measurement. Thus we can more confidently answer the question. “The car was going 975 meters per second” and coincidentally “the car has vaporized.”

So what happens if we replace a measurement-based question of science with the more esoteric question “how shall I live?” What different forms of evidence would we need to come to a good conclusion?

In a sense, each one of us has answered, wittingly or not, this question of “how shall I live?” We answer it every day, by simply doing the things we’re doing. If you choose to write, work, love, kill or play facebook games, you’re answering that question every minute. The largest proponent of any of our answers is likely what we might call our “profession”.

So when asked the question, “how shall I live?” an engineer is answering differently than a dancer. A truck driver is answering differently than an accountant. A soldier differently than a preacher. A farmer differently than a cab driver.

So how can we create consilience in our venture to answer the big question? How can I answer the question as both a soldier and a preacher? As both a farmer and a cab driver?

My answer? Be curious about every damn thing in this world. Get rid of “career paths” and dive headlong into the wilderness of complexity. If I’m going to gather lots and lots of evidence, I can’t just be one thing!

This, of course, means getting rid of the presupposed identity I’ve cast upon myself. “I couldn’t do that, I’m an artist.” “I shouldn’t try this, I just flip burgers.” “I can’t dance, I’m a plumber.” By opening up my identity as “what I do” rather than “who I think I am”, I can step into any realm!

Most recently, I’ve been learning how to code–and let me be the first tell you, I’m not great at it. It takes me 20 lines of messy code to do what someone else can do in 2 elegant lines. So why do I bother? I’m not going to wow any coders anytime soon and coding sure doesn’t come up a lot in the rehearsal room. Why am I wasting my time?

Because of consilience. Coders see the world in a way I don’t, so I want to learn their language, both literally and figuratively. So instead of choosing to just see the world as a director or a performer, I can see it as a coder. Or a geologist, or a carpenter, or a clown. By gathering skills and knowledge in diverse areas, consilience can help me gather evidence for answering my ultimate question: “how shall I live?”

Now, I could be silly. Maybe I should stick to my guns. I should get good at something and push as hard as I can towards it. But there’s something in me that can’t do that. I need to keep learning. If I’m going to purport a solution to the question “how shall I live?” I ought to collect plenty of evidence.

So until my brain fully crystallizes and all my youthful plasticity is gone, you can find me flitting about, being an “Other” and running headlong into useless things I’m not very good at.

Philosophers Fingerpainting and Ballerinas Coding: A Celebration of Consilience