The Heart: A Thought Experiment
The Dichotomy Paradox
If there is a party. If the party has music and hanging lights and soft laughter. If I am holding a plastic cup of cabernet, my second or third. If I am feeling lonely. If I see you in a far corner. If I want to reach you.
Then I will have to cross the room to get to you. And if I want to cross the room to get to you, I will first have to get halfway there. And then halfway there again. And halfway again. The distance forever shrinking, never vanishing. I will eternally move toward you, but we will never touch.
But we do touch. A shoulder. An elbow. You drink my cabernet. Behind me lies the space I somehow crossed. The room, proof of magic.
Everything depends on initial velocity. If a cannonball is launched horizontally from the earth at a speed of less than 7,000 meters per second, it will come crashing back to land. The thud will be heavy, dull, disappointing.
If the speed is between 7,000 and 10,000 meters per second, it is called orbital velocity. The cannonball will fall toward the earth and the curved earth will fall away beneath it. The ball will circle like the moon, falling forever into gravity. There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand, it’s like a dance. It’s your body spinning around mine, mine around yours. It’s feeling tethered, feeling propelled. It’s having a solid center.
On the other hand, it’s a trap. It’s the impossibility of escape.
Of course, there’s a third option. If its speed exceeds 10,000 meters per second—escape velocity—the cannonball will be launched like a stone from a slingshot. It will careen into space, rocketing through emptiness. It will be alone and unanchored. It won’t come back.
I say I love you. You say you love me. I wonder if you mean the same thing when you say it as I mean when I say it. I wonder what the inside of your chest feels like.
Lying in bed, we inch our pillows closer and stare at each other. I wonder if you’re real. Maybe you wonder the same thing about me. Maybe we’re both lying here wondering if the other person is real, and if real, how real. I laugh when you tickle me. When I kiss you, you kiss back. But this means very little. I could laugh because I know I am supposed to. You might kiss back because that is the appropriate response. Are you happy? we ask each other. What are you thinking? we ask. But the answers are always suspect.
The Brainstorm Machine
And say, for a moment, there was a machine. The machine has two funny metal helmet thingies. I put one on. You put on the other. The machine’s purpose is to feed your subjective visual experience into my brain, so that I can close my eyes and report on exactly what you’re seeing. And wow! The sky is actually green! Our cat is not grey but purple! Wow wow wow! And this seems to confirm that yes, it’s all different, the way you see the world and the way I see it.
Except then, the technician restarts the machine and afterwards the sky is blue again and the cat is grey. Did the machine stop working? Or was it faulty the first time? And we try to talk about it, you and I, but there’s still no way to know if what I call blue is what you call blue. And we go home grumpy.
You ask me to move in. We are, after all, quite in love. I stand halfway between my place and yours, two equally appealing choices, and am unable to move. Your place has intimacy and a window seat. My place has independence and granite countertops. It begins to rain, but I still don’t move. It appears I will be homeless forever.
On good days, we marvel that we found each other. The world is huge. How unlikely that this beautiful thing would happen. How lucky we are. How lucky lucky lucky.
On other days, it feels like it was inevitable. Cliché, even. Of course we would meet. Of course we would start chatting at the party. Of course you would sweep your hair out of your eyes and of course I would blush. Given who you are, given who I am, there’s no way things could have gone any differently.
Is our future equally inevitable? If you knew the precise location and momentum of every atom in the universe, you could predict the future. You could reveal the past. It’s all a matter of calculation.
We are like two hedgehogs in the cold. We want to get close to share warmth, but as soon as we do, we impale each other.
The Utility Monster
I hurt you every day. Well maybe not every day, but a lot of days. You hurt me too. We hurt each other more frequently than we hurt anybody else. Sometimes it’s an accident. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes I think about doing x, and I know that x will hurt you but I also know that x will make me happy. Sometimes I take the slice of pie you wanted, because I’m pretty sure I wanted it more.
If x causes you one unit of pain but causes me five unites of pleasure, am I justified in pursuing x? What if x is a drunken kiss with a coworker at the company Christmas party? What if x is dinner with said coworker? What if x is lying to you about the aforementioned kissing and dining with coworker? What if what I thought was one unit of pain turns out to be more like four, five, six?
Ship of Theseus
If we stay together, the relationship will be changed. It will have a chunk missing. Certain parts will require replacing. If every year another part is replaced, at what point will this relationship cease to be the same one we had at the beginning? At what point will we become strangers?
Achilles and the Tortoise
And if you leave, I won’t be able to catch you. I will run after you, but as soon as I reach your position, you will have moved farther away. No matter how fast I am, you will remain permanently out of reach.
Gravity is more mysterious than it seems. If all objects with mass are drawn to each other, shouldn’t everything collide? Should planets crash together? Shouldn’t stars stick like magnets? Shouldn’t you and I fuse, our bodies lock, the lines between us blur?
Except it doesn’t work that way. There are other forces at play, pushing back, resisting gravity’s tug. These forces spread us out, thinner and thinner, like butter across toast. The universe is expanding, and the expansion gets faster all the time. In a hundred billion years, most of our stars will have vanished from sight. Only a few silver galaxies will remain—a dim glint, far away, getting farther. Gone.
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