Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Local Hill Climbing

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An old boss of mine once posed the following problem. Suppose you've been dropped into a remote mountainous region in the Pacific Northwest. Your location is unknown and you don't have a map. The terrain is complex and hilly, and the air is thick with fog. There are mountains, that much is clear, but their height and steepness are hard to determine in the milky blanket of cloud covering the land. The objective is to get as high as you can.

It's virtually impossible to determine which of the many available peaks is the highest, or if a more distant obscured summit is higher than all the ones nearby. The trails are steep, gravelly, and thickly wooded in all directions, but they do go up. What's the best strategy to obtain our simple objective?

Some hiking and scouting is certainly welcome and justified. Though the fog is thick, it's unsteady, and each new angle and each passing moment yields new information about the topology of the mountains. Every once and a while the clouds scatter for a moment, and the summits appear. We're real, they taunt, come see us. I imagine the  interloper rambling through the passes, watching the slopes and curves of the hills, building an imagined world in her head as faithfully to the reality surrounding her as possible. Eventually, though, the only way to gain elevation is to go up.

With total clarity of mind and knowledge of the terrain, it would be easy to plot the fastest route from any point in the valley to the highest summit within walking distance. This doesn't exist in reality. While the global optimum path is elusive to our climber, it's easy to ensure that each step is a little higher than the last. The slope and its directionality is obvious to the hiker chugging away on its side. This can be done even when virtually all of the land is fogged into obscurity. Going up, the feet beat on, each lifting its partner above it with each step. Ultimately, this local hill climbing is the only way to make progress on our stated objective. Climb now, where you can, even if it's not the best way any human could climb, and try again if your summit isn't the right one.

I think this mental exercise is a good analogy for what it's like to seek truth as a fragile, fallible human being. The rigid truthful reality is there, incomprehensible and sublime as it is from the human perspective. We can take steps now, everywhere, to inch ourselves closer to what we can and should be as people, but there's no guarantee that the methods we seek with are optimized or even converging on the best solutions. As I've marched through high school, then college, and soon grad school, I've become more self-conscious about how little I truly understand about myself, the universe, and the way we inhabit it. There's so much I don't know. I want to climb, so I'll keep marching. The anxiety that I might be circling a summit as I hunt, or that I'm going up the wrong mountain can be daunting at times. The only solution, such as it is, is to keep searching despite the doubt.

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