On Repetition

Shoemakers tell us that “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” Physicists tell us that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Philosophers tell us that “those who  cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Businessmen tell us that “history is bunk.” So which is it? Do we take the business approach and keep pushing and repeating events until something yields? Or do we take the advice of academics and learn when to call it quits and save ourselves from futile work?


In short, why should you ever expect changes to occur amid constancy? Why repeat things and expect a different outcome?

One, variations exist. More specifically we can observe them as they come into being. With even the most basic mathematical starting points, fractals can spread into patterns that could not have been predicted. Mandelbrot has made a life’s worth of work out of this.

“The basic aspect of the world is roughness” – Benoit Mandelbrot

Two, we know there is an arrow to time. Ilya Prigogine has shown that time is stochastic and irreversible. Which makes the future unpredictable. Which means time flows. As much as we can describe the quantity of things in the first law of thermodynamics, the quality is given by the second law.

I’m not talking chronemics. This is not a feeling that time is passing. Time is passing. We can talk of wave functions and probabilities, but if time did not flow things would be trapped in that limbo. Do not be cowed into thinking that your “now” is simply a distance on a string or a cone or a book edge. You are not a square, and any analogy between you as a person and you as any one of these objects will be ultimately unconvincing. If you fell for it, that means you’re listening to too many people who read pop science instead of people who are doing science:

“Physicists have never showed, or claimed to show, that there could not be a sequence of preferred global ‘now’s that define absolute simultaneity. They simply abandoned the idea for practical reasons… Few if any physicists of today would claim that any deep metaphysical ontological conclusions could be deduced from those practical considerations. For one thing we are now aware of blackbody background radiation, which appears to define a preferred reference frame within which massive objects tend to move slowly. For another thing, Kurt Godel has noted that there are preferred definitions of global ‘now’s in all the models in general relativity.” – HP Stapp

Now, if all your models require something to function, then it better be real or the rest won’t be. Such an argument can never get off the ground.

Thus, variations come to be in time. How this happens is complicated, and the rules might still be changing, but this means things are in flux and changes happen. Overall, the interpretation of time and the subsequent variations, and how to live in light of that fact, is up to you. But the fact that it gives rise to change has to be acknowledged either way:

“Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it: because it is a fact” – GK Chesterton

So it seems like there are pretty good reasons to doubt the academic argument against repetition and in fact keep trying the same thing. It may be hard to tell when the surrounding conditions change and your repetitive acts are justified as a way to see if conditions still hold.

What about when you know conditions are unchanged? Is repetition under identical conditions pointless? Not really. We usually just call this being principled. The unpredictable call it boring. The retort is that only the boring get bored. And so it goes, back and forth, retort after retort, ad infinitum. It may be that the debate between what is preferable between boring and unpredictable will remain forever unsettled: the principled person will see no worthwhile principles that show her any value in being unpredictable, while the persona that varies while pursuing hedonism will find any talk of principles boring and reject it. For every GK Chesterton, there’s Oscar Wilde. That’s not to say there is not currently an overabundance of FOMO and YOLO:

“What’s the point of thinking?” – Kanye West

But like I stated above, there is no knock down argument to be made when axiologies are incompatible. But if you accept that there are at least some principles worth adhering to, then repetition has value even in unchanged environments.

So there are reasons for repetition both when there are, and when there are not, changes in the external environment. So when do we not repeat? When is changing one’s behavior warranted? When one’s mindset plays the role of the fox stuck in its own hole:

“Once upon a time there was a fox who was so lacking in slyness that he not only kept getting caught in traps but couldn’t even tell the difference between a trap and a non-trap. … After he had spent his entire youth prowling around the traps of people … this fox decided to withdraw from the fox world altogether and to set about making himself a burrow… He built a trap as his burrow. He set himself inside it, passed it off as a normal burrow (not out of cunning, but because he had always thought others’ traps were their burrows). … Alas, no one would go into his trap, because he was sitting inside it himself. And so it occurred to our fox to decorate his trap beautifully …From this point on many came. Everyone except our fox could, of course, step out of it again. It was cut, literally, to his own measurement. But the fox who lived in the trap said proudly: “So many are visiting me in my trap that I have become the best of all foxes.” And there is some truth in that, too: Nobody knows the nature of traps better than one who sits in a trap his whole life long.”- Hannah Arendt

So how often do we update our internal models of the world so as to not get stuck in our own trap and become complacent in our assumptions and knowledge? How often do we need to expect the external rules to change? Tautologically, one should only suspect change when there is a reason to suspect change, such as a modification made to the surrounding model.

How do you suspect a change has happened? Not through simple observation. You can’t keep checking to see if repeatedly checking will lead to a point where one no longer needs to repeatedly check. The logic devours itself.  We need to be rational in deciding when to stop conducting empiricism, and we need empiricism to verify the rational models we’ve constructed. This contrast between empiricism and rationalism, for the sake of space, needs to be saved for another day.

Screenshot (16)
How to rationally divvy up your empirical ventures (and what to avoid)

So there needs to be repetition in life. That doesn’t mean change isn’t occurring at the same time. And it doesn’t need to be problematic. Even when we repeat necessary tasks, we should seek to avoid boredom and find a way to be happy and lighthearted as a way of striking back. This is a simple strategy that is employed by the youngest among us as a way to keep their humanity while the edifice of a larger and stronger external world constructs itself around them and starts making incessant demands.

“Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence” – Albert Camus

The vigor of youth keeps away the monotony. It allows the fractals to keep churning out new extensions of itself even though it’s following the same rules repetitively.

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.” – GK Chesterton

So we repeat things, but we also need to find ways to bring novelty into the repetition. We need to embrace the changes that happen, whether a pleasant surprise or a problem. The alternative is to avoid the possibilities of novelty, by staying repetitive within repetition itself. That’s the closest thing I can imagine to a living death.


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