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03 March, 2007

Want Is A Vector

Have you ever had one of those discussions that go:

Spouse: The Pope’s invited us to lunch. Do you want to go?

You: If you want to.

Spouse: You don’t want to go.

You: I do if you do.

Spouse: Yes, but you don’t really want to do you?

And so on. Of course, if the conversation was between me and Wifie and the Pope had really invited us to lunch, my first response would be a resounding ‘No!’ on the ground that I try to avoid the company of ageing fascists. On the other hand, I know that Wifie loves Italy and would love a chance to pop over in the Papal private jet. To be honest, I’d also like to have a look around the Vatican – I’m sure it is as beautiful as it would be infuriating. On the other hand, we’d need to find a sitter for the cat, it’s the middle of winter over there, and I hate having to dress to other people’s expectations. On the other hand, we’d be handy to visit some friends in Spain, so however boring the lunch was, we might get a decent trip out of it. On the other hand…

The point is that ‘want’ is a vector. It is the sum of many, many different wants, all pulling in different directions. Wikipedia has a pretty unfriendly definition of a vector in the sense that I mean it. Maybe the best way to think of how a vector works is to think of some physical system in which different forces are acting on an object in different directions and with different stregths. A ship at sea, for instance, has a course and speed that is partially determined by its engines and rudder but also by the ocean’s currents and the winds that are blowing on it. These three forces (engine, wind and current) might work all in the same direction or all at odds with one another, making the actual course and speed (the ship’s vector) the product of the speed and direction of each of them.

And that’s what wants are like. I might want to please Wifie and that will pull me in one direction but I also want to avoid religious nutters and that would pull me another way. I might want to satisfy my curiosity about just how stinking rich the Catholic church is but I might also think travelling 15,000 kilometres for an Italian meal is a bit excessive – each pulling me in other directions. The result – what I say I ‘want’ after all this deliberation – is the vector of my desires in a complex, multidimensional, psychological space.

It’s no wonder that conversations like this happen all the time.

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