Monday, October 2, 2017

Inactivity can be a good thing

Back in Athens, I often found myself standing still, staring out towards the hills, not really looking at them but gazing through them. Sometimes I would stand motionless for hours. People thought I was mad. I have even read recent historical descriptions in which they claim my motionless gaze was caused by a neurological seizure. Really? Are people not allowed to stand motionless unless something is wrong?

You know what I was doing? I was listening to my Daemon--a voice in my head. I still do this. You might also think I am mad. Well, when i say I listen to a Daemon, I don't really mean a supernatural being. My Daemon is my inner voice. It is my conscience. It is my reason. The time I spend listening to it is time I spend reasoning through philosophical problems.

Coming back to the first point, I find it strange that people find it problematic for someone to sit and stare at the world. It is as if they think that inactivity is not a worthy use of time. Perhaps not so much back in Athens, but certainly in this new world it seems to be a commonly held view that one must always be active. People make a virtue out of surviving on less sleep. Why? Less sleep means more time to be active, which means more time to be productive. But I like sleep, so I disagree with this thought.

Allow me to examine my own life by representing my habit of gazing into the sky in syllogistic form:

P1. I must always be active
P2. If I must always be active, then non-active time is not time well spent
P3. Because I am sitting and gazing into the sky, I am not active
C. Therefore, sitting and gazing into the sky is not time well spent.

This, I think, captures the argument. And, to be clear, this isn't just about me. It is about all of us. Now, we can see that the argument is deductively valid. In other words, the conclusion follows from the premises. But it doesn't seem convincing, does it? Well, perhaps it is convincing for an employer, but I am fortunate enough to be able to listen to myself, not an employer. So I will question the premises.

Premise #1 is clearly false. I mustn't always be active. I need to sleep in order to live. And sleep is inactive time. So there are times when I must be inactive.

This same thought applies to premise #2. Even if we accept premise #1, premise #2 is false because non-active time can sometimes be well spent. For example, when I sleep I am reviving my health. When I stare at the sky, I am listening to my Daemon (my inner voice) and reasoning through problems.

Let us move on to premise #3. This premise has given me another way to look at the argument. My first response to premise #3 is to suggest that when I am sitting, gazing into the sky, it is false that I am inactive. My mind is, in fact, active. Now, when I apply this thought to premise #2, I find that listening to my inner voice is not an example of inactive time. Still, other people do consider me to be inactive during those times. What does this mean? It means that we have embarked upon the analysis without a definition of the word "active". So we must take a step backwards and define the term. Sometimes the best way forward is to step backwards.

So what does the word "active" mean? For the people who think I am wasting my time by sitting and thinking, it means being physically engaged. But for me, activity can also mean thinking. There is, after all, mental activity taking place. This means the argument can be shown to fail in two ways. If "activity" means physical activity, the argument fails because non-active time can be worthwhile. And if "activity" is extended to include mental activity, the argument fails because premise #3 is false. Sitting and gazing into the sky is not inactive time because there is thinking taking place. But regardless of which meaning of the word "active" we use, it seems that the argument does not work because premise #1 is false, as indicated by our need to sleep.

Well, have we settled the issue? Not quite. For I think some people may consider sleep to be active time. Even during non-dream sleep, the body is healing itself. If we take this broader definition of "active", it seems to me that there is no such thing as "inactivity" (at least while I am a living being). If this is true, people cannot accuse me of spending my time poorly when I sit and gaze at the sky.

My short analysis has helped me to realize that I should ignore people who tell me that my time spent staring at the sky is not time well spent. And I highly recommend it. You should try it sometime.

-- Socrates