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My Favorite African Photo

I got back from an African safari vacation last night, very jet-lagged, having not slept for about 43 hours.  When I woke up this morning, I was anxious  to start organizing the photographs from my trip.  Siting down at the PC to do so, I found an e-mail from my erstwhile roommate, John, reminding me to send him photos of the wildlife I’d seen.  (John is an avid outdoorsman who once tried to make a living as a wildlife photographer.) Having not yet gone through the photos myself, having not yet cropped, nor cut, nor selected any of them, I wasn’t ready to give John the full-blown “Here Are the Pics of My African Vacation” slideshow – but I decided I’d send him just one of them – both because it was my sentimental favorite, of all those I’d taken, and because I knew that John, of all people, would appreciate it.

Now, the reason John would appreciate this particular photo was not just that he’s an erstwhile wildlife photographer; almost all the photos I’d taken were of African wildlife.  But the year that John and I spent as college roommates, many decades ago, were marked by regular discussions of deep philosophical issues; and this photograph had become my  favorite due to its philosophical implications, implications I felt sure John would appreciate.

As I learned on the Shamwari game preserve, most wild baboon troops of South Africa run quickly away at the approach of human beings.  But on the day this photograph was taken, I had come to the extreme southwestern tip of the African continent, a rocky, mountainous formation that rises high above sea level like the prow of a sailing ship that projects above the ocean waves.  In fact, here is a photograph – one taken from the Wikipedia article regarding the Cape of Good Hope – which shows the general topography of the place.

View at Cape Point

(Photo by Thomas Bjørkan - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21923168)

Naturally enough, given the impressive topography, the Cape has become a tourist attraction.  The result of being a tourist attraction is that the native baboons of the Cape have lost their fear of human beings.  In the Cape Point parking lot, they were nearly as plentiful as the people, ready to pounce on anyone foolish enough to walk by with a sandwich in hand.  They were sitting on the roofs of cars.  They were scouting for half-open windows through which to steal picnic lunches.  They were on the rocks, in the bushes, outside the souvenir shop, intermingling fearlessly with us, their more advanced cousins.

I took the photograph in question – the photograph I wanted to send to John because it had become my favorite – while standing on the Cape, looking south like some fifteenth century Portuguese explorer from the bow of his ship, gazing across thousands of miles of ocean toward the south pole.  The Atlantic Ocean was to my right, the Indian not far to my left, and the Antarctic somewhere far in the distance in front of me. To my immediate left, on the summit of the mountain peak, a lighthouse had been built to guide ships rounding the Cape. Because of my fear of heights, I had not attempted the funicular or the steep climb from the funicular to the summit, but as I looked at the rocky cliff, with the triple-ocean breeze blowing into my face and the triple-ocean surf crashing into the old, unmoving rocks below, I noticed movement high up on the cliff’s stony face.  Tapping into the unconscious (but ingrained) ability of one primate to recognize the movements of another, I was drawn to it, a twitch on the horizon, a dark profile silhouetted against a bright sky.  He was maybe fifteen hundred feet away from me and several hundred feet higher than me, but I could see him settle onto one of the highest, most southerly rocks of the cliff side, clearly fixing his gaze southward, looking out over the oceans just as I’d been doing — except, of course, that he was braver and more agile than me, having dared to climb out onto the virtual bowsprit of the continent, where I would not.  I wondered why he wasn’t in the parking lot, with the rest of his kind, ready to pounce on a tourist; wondered why he had gone off on his own, to gaze across the oceans toward the vast unknown.

Like all primates, baboons are an intelligent species.  Scientists have recently discovered that they can acquire orthographic processing skills which form part of the ability to read.* I wondered if this solitary philosopher was more intelligent than his fellows in the parking lot.  I imagined the thoughts he was having about other lands, far away.  I imagined him capable of evolving into another Bartholomeo Diaz someday.  Gazing across the ocean and into the unknown, I wondered: wasn’t it possible he had seen ships pass, and wondered how he might build a ship of his own, to go exploring, some day?  I maximized the camera’s zoom and got the best picture of the contemplative creature I could.

The sight so impressed me, in fact, that for the rest of my time in Africa, I told people about it.  Last night – my first night home – I told my wife, and my daughters, and my grandson Jacob, about it.  Jacob in particular was wide-eyed as I promised to show him the photograph when he comes over this afternoon.   The profiled creature has become my hero; the photograph of him looking out across the ocean has stuck with me, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head – more than the photographs of lions, cheetahs, elephants, and giraffes I took – even more than the elegant springbok herd, the pod of dangerous hippopotami, or the solitary, rare and elusive black rhinoceros.  It is my favorite photograph, despite the fact that, fully zoomed in, and lacking a tripod for my camera, the image came out slightly blurry. It is my favorite not for its technical quality, but because of its fascinating philosophical implications.  And as I composed my e-mail to John this morning, he seemed the perfect person to appreciate those implications.

Anyway, this morning, as I composed my e-mail to John, I described the photograph I was sending him, describing why it was my favorite, much as I had to Jacob last night, much as I have to you here.  As I was finishing my written description to John, my grandson Evan walked into the room. I invited him to come take a look at the photograph of the contemplative baboon.  I fetched it from the digital camera’s SD drive and displayed it on my monitor.  Evan and I shared still more deep, philosophical observations about our most intriguing subject.  Finally, after Evan departed, I embedded the photograph into my e-mail to John, as I now do here:

You can see the solitary baboon toward the top of the picture, squatting on all fours, his tail raised behind him, dreaming of building his own ship and exploring the oceans on three sides of him.

Alternatively, you can do as I did.  To wit: as I embedded the photograph into my e-mail to John, I realized that I could blow it up even larger, digitally, than I’d been able to do through the zoom setting on the camera  With the wonders of modern technology – my virtual icon in the shape of a magnifying glass with a plus sign – I was able to enlarge the photo enough to see the image at a level of detail not revealed by the camera’s telephoto lens.  Glints of sunlight on the rock, the baboon’s tail, his haunches.  Magnifying the image even more, I thought I might even have captured the contemplative expression on the creature’s face.  But the more I enlarged it, the more the baboon’s haunches looked like a torso, his legs hidden behind the rock; and the more its tail looked like a back pack.  With a final enlargement, I could see how close this baboon had evolved to the point of being able to read – he was wearing a pair of glasses.

As you’ve figured out by now, the fascinating, contemplative creature was actually a tourist, just like me (only without the fear of heights). The only baboon in the picture had been on my side of the lens.  What will I tell my grandchildren now?  (At least until now, a few of them still look up to me.)  Is that Jacob, coming up the stairs now?

Still, the photograph remains my favorite wildlife photograph.  And the reason hasn’t changed, either: although it’s still a bit blurry, the photograph has deep, philosophical implications for the species it portrays.

— Joe

*Jonathan Grainger; Stéphane Dufau; Marie Montant; Johannes C. Ziegler; Joël Fagot (2012). “Orthographic processing in baboons (Papio papio)”. Science. 336 (6078): 245–248. PMID 22499949. doi:10.1126/science.1218152.

 

 

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The Rather Large Ant

Thanks to my now-37-year-old son Daniel for today’s illustration of one reason we’re so easily and often wrong.  His e-mail to his mother, in thanks for his birthday present:
“Thanks mom, I love the shorts.  We recently changed to casual dress at work and all my old ones were probably bought when I was in junior high. I’ve been meaning to upgrade but I HATE clothes shopping, so this is a truly useful gift.
“Now on to the bad part. While I do enjoy the chocolates you gifted, I think we need to make those [chocolates] in-person gifts only from here on out. They actually held up to the temperature surprisingly well; they weren’t melted at all. However…
“As I was opening the package I noticed a rather large ant on my arm. I swatted it and continued opening the package.  I saw another ant on my leg.  As I went to send it to meet its brother, from the corner of my eye I saw two others skittering along the outside of the package.
“I figured a handful of ants had decided to check the package out.  While picking through the shorts I began to realize I should have taken this endeavor outside, as one after another appeared.  But I continued methodically, ensuring no ant escaped as I carefully separated each layer of the shorts, still blissfully overconfident in my ability to handle whatever lay ahead. When I got to the final pair I was a bit stressed out – I don’t like killing things, not even ants.  But this is my house now, and I gotta let them know.
“I lift that last pair up, and I see the expected few newly-disturbed ants run across its pockets. I’m happy this whole thing is almost over.  I reach toward one of the final survivors. He loses his footing, perhaps in fear as he sees that God has now chosen him, and falls to the bottom of the expected-to-be-empty box. Only it wasn’t. There is something truly awful about a swarm of anything, and ants are no exception. The silver lining is that millipedes would have been infinitely worse. I had the pride not to scream, but I jumped back in horror and revulsion. Right now the box is sitting in the backyard, to be dealt with in the safety of daylight.
“Thank you for the shorts and nightmares, mom.
“I love you more than you know.”
Dan’s e-mail was not composed with an eye toward appearing in this blog, but I offer it (with his permission) because it seems to me an excellent illustration of how we’re so good at persisting in error.  Central to this phenomenon, in my view, are the roles played by focus, expectation, and confidence.  In Dan’s case, the appearance of a single ant — a “rather large” ant, in fact — created a perception that it was a solitary intruder.  On the strength of that initial perception, the appearance of three other ants caused no more than the minimally necessary adjustment to the initial theory— a “handful” of ants was in the process of checking out the box.  And having adopted a careful strategy to deal with that belief — the uncovering and execution of every single threatening intruder — his very carefulness, his focused determination to execute that strategy, led to expectation, and to confidence in the result expected.  That very focus and confidence is what blinded him to the truth.
He’s a chip off the old block, alright — and so are the rest of us, I think: confirmation bias and WYSIATI (as Daniel Kahneman calls it) — What You See Is All There Is — are shared cognitive traits we’ve all inherited from common ancestors.  In the world in which we live, individual ants — the things we see — seem large.  Taken individually, each new ant simply confirms what we already believe; it takes a sudden swarm, discovered too late, to shock us into awareness of the way things really are.
Humility is the mother of wisdom, I think.  So my wish for today is that we can look at every ant we come across with wonder, knowing that behind every little thing we see, there’s a great many more — some of which are far larger — that we don’t.
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Looking For Heresy in All the Wrong Places

People have different views about the causes of heresy.  There are many, I suppose.  But have you ever considered the role mere words play, in causing heresy?

By heresy, of course, I don’t mean a departure from the One True Religion.  (Not knowing what the One True Religion is, I wouldn’t know a departure from it if it hit me square between the eyes.)  Rather, I mean heresy in the original Greek sense of the word – meaning choice.  Have you ever seen two strangers who agreed right off that God exists, but who, after discussing their ideas of deity long enough, have discovered areas of disagreement?  Have you ever seen how, if they talk about God long enough, those disagreements sometimes fester?  How the sometimes lead to argument and to accusations of heresy, with schism and holy war not far behind?  If so, have you wondered how much of the difference comes down to a difference in words?

Consider Jupiter and Zeus, for example.  To the ears of a modern Christian, Muslim, or Jew, the words Jupiter and Zeus likely produce similar distaste:  after all, Jupiter and Zeus were gods of the Romans and Greeks; which is to say, pagan; which is to say, heathen, or false.  Anyone who worships Jupiter or Zeus today would be considered a heretic.  But the Greek word Zeus is simply a different spelling of the Latin word Deus, meaning god.  (The Greeks didn’t pronounce their word as one syllable, Zoose, as we do.  They pronounced it as two syllables, Dzeh-oos.  You might even say it out loud.  Pronounced with historic authenticity, the relationship to the Romans’ two-syllable De-us is more easily heard if you do.)  The word Jupiter, in turn, was sometimes spelled Diuspiter or Diuspater, and is simply a Romanized spelling of the Greek word Zeuspater.

These differences in spelling are ultimately due to differences of pronunciation.  Since the birth of language itself, differences in pronunciation have resulted from geographic dispersion.  Jack and Jill pronounce words the same way,  but after Jack emigrates to the mountains, after a few generations, his progeny are pronouncing things differently than those in the valley.   If we could roll back time, we could see that an ancient Greek pagan on bended knee to Zeuspater was worshiping the same god as the ancient Roman worshiping Deuspater – or was at least using the same words, just pronouncing them differently.  Furthermore, and most importantly, if we put pronunciation aside (along with its stepchild, spelling) we can see that both Roman and Greek alike were worshiping God the Father.  That is even we use the same words to describe God that the ancients did – “God the Father” – only we pronounce it differently.

Consider another example: the word Jove.  When Henry Higgins said, in My Fair Lady, “By Jove, I think she’s got it!” his exclamation referred to the pagan god Jove, right?  As you likely know, in ancient Rome, Jove was another name for Jupiter.  (In fact, the Romans used Jovis as the genitive case of Jupiter.)  But have you ever considered how the word Jove would have been pronounced in that ancient world?  I’m talking as a student of phonetics, the way Henry Higgins’ studied the pronunciation of Eliza Doolittle.

First of all, the Romans pronounced their J and I like a long E.  (Julius, as in Caesar, was pronounced  Ee-ooh-lee-us.)  We speakers of English sometimes pronounce our i’s the same way – like the i in media, or the second i in idiotic.   When the Romans pronounced Jove, then, the word as they pronounced it began with the sound of our long E, or “ee.”

Moving to the second letter, the o of Jove:  just as in English, the Romans had both a long and a short o, and they were pronounced like the long and short o’s. are in English.  But while we’ve come to pronounce the word Jove with a long o, the Romans pronounced their original with a short one: the same short o sound we use in the words hot, shot, and not.  (I’ll spell that sound here as ah.)  The first two sounds of the Roman pronunciation of Jove, then, would have been the sounds Ee and ah.

Next we come to Jove’s letter v.  If you ever studied Latin, you know that the Romans pronounced their v’s like we pronounce w’s.  (Anatomically, their top teeth didn’t rest on their lower lips.)  That is, they pronounced Caesar’s Veni, vidi, vici as Way-nee wee-dee wee-kee.  They’d have pronounced the v in Jove as if it were written with an English w.

This brings us to Jove’s final e.  The Romans knew of no such thing as the English “silent e” at the end of a word.  A final e was always to be pronounced.  It could be long or short.  If, as in the ablative form Jove, it were short, it would have been pronounced eh, as in the English word bed. If long, it would have been pronounced ay, like the e of paté or the Spanish que.

Putting those four facts of Roman pronunciation together, we find that the Roman pronunciation of “Jove” would not have been anything like the way Professor Higgins pronounced it.  Julius Caesar would have pronounced  J – O – V – E  as Ee – Ah – W – Eh or EE – Ah – W – Ay.  Try it yourself, if you like: say Ee-ah-w-eh out loud.  As many times as he played the recording over and over again, Professor Higgins would have had a heckuva time distinguishing the sound of Jove from the sound of Yahweh.

Imagine what an argument might have sounded like, when an ancient Roman and ancient Jew debated whether Jove or Yahweh was the real God the Father!

“It’s Yahweh,” says the Jew.

“Not it’s not!  It’s Ee-ah-w-eh!” says the Roman.

Sadly,  I think, genocides, crucifixions, and jihads have come from differences not much more substantial than that.

Which brings me to my final word for today:  Ignosticism.  It should not be confused with agnosticism.  It is a philosophic concept which maintains that it isn’t possible to “believe in God” without first having a clear idea of what the word “God” means.  It goes to the heart of the difference between saying that we know something about a subject and knowing everything about it.

To illustrate, if Jack’s God were good and Jill’s bad, we’d likely say they did not believe in the same god. If Jack’s god created the world, but Jill’s didn’t, likewise.  If Jack’s were omnipotent and everlasting, and Jill’s wasn’t, likewise.  But how far down that path should we go?  If Jack’s god threw Lucifer out of Heaven, and Jill’s didn’t, are they the same god?  If Jack’s turned water into wine, and Jill’s didn’t, are they the same god?  If Jack’s god tells us to pray toward Mecca, or to cut off our foreskins, or to not eat meat on Friday’s, and Jill’s doesn’t, can they be talking about the same God?  At what point does it make sense to feel confident that two people, each of whom shout from the mountaintops that “I believe in God,” actually believe in the SAME god?

I mean, if you know a guy name Abe Lincoln who was assassinated in 1865, and I know a guy by that same name who was very much like yours – a lawyer, an Illinois Republican with a wife named Mary Todd who once argued cases for the railroads, etc – but my guy is still alive in Honolulu, then we’re talking about two different Abe Lincolns, right?  If your car is a 2014 Toyota Avalon with a beige leather interior and XM radio, and so is mine, we’re still talking about two totally different cars unless they share precisely the same Vehicle Identification Number inscribed on the body, right?  When we’re talking about real people or things, we’re used to thinking that either they share precisely the same histories, behaviors, and other characteristics, or they’re two distinct things, right?  Conceived that way, do two people ever believe in the same God?

I believe that early in human history, there were many who shared a similar feeling that the sky was like a father who lived above mere mortals and, when so disposed, fertilized the soil below.   At some point, people who shared that vague analogy – or who had experienced the same Creator in the Garden of Eden – began using the ancient equivalent of words like “father god.”  As our numbers grew, some of us moving across mountains, others sailing across seas, the words with which we shared the analogy evolved in different ways no less than the tortoises of the Galapagos.  As we focused on nuances and details, we eventually developed detailed systems of words to define our beliefs and practices.  Vaguely-defined analogies to a heavenly father became debates over methods and the time of creation; analogies to biology became arguments over the possibility of a virgin birth; analogies to fatherhood led to schisms over whether Jesus of Nazareth was a son, and if so, an “only begotten” one; and belief in a common father-god led to  holy wars among peoples, all of whom believed in the One True God of Abraham, but who adopted very different traditions about which of the descendants of Abraham was an incarnation of that God, and which His mere prophet.

If I proclaim “I believe in God,” my dear mother (may she rest in peace) may rejoice for me.  At the same time, my agnostic friends may wonder what purple Kool-Aid I’ve gotten into.  Among my friends who are believers, some may express happiness at my new-found faith, but may wonder if I believe in the same god they do.  To all of them, I can only express that I am, if anything, a heretic.  I am a heretic in the word’s original sense: I have made a choice regarding the words I use to express my sense of awe and appreciation.  I choose the words I do carefully and with great reserve, because it seems to me that words get in the way. Indeed, it seems to me that unless I’m willing to say that my god exhibits all the same inherent characteristics, engages in all the same activities, and condones all the same behaviors, rituals, and forms of worship that someone else’s god does, then I don’t know what it is I’d be trying to communicate by saying “I believe in God.”  Does the assertion have any meaning if we have no common understanding of what “God” is? Ignosticism holds that it does not.

I share (with most of humankind, I think) a sense of awe at Creation, an intuition that there’s something more powerful than myself, a sense of reverence, even thanks, for that which brought all this to be.  I share with many a sense of trust that, in the end, its all a good thing.  But when a government form asks me what religion I am, I fear that “ignostic” will cause someone to think I mean agnostic.  If I put “heretic,” I’ll risk being ostracized by those who mean something else by that word, something that at times has caused people to be burned at the stake.   And in the end, I think that if we want to find the root causes of heresy, we may have been looking in all the wrong places.  Words, I believe, are among the root causes of heresy, because words are our own fickle creations, laden with all the nearsightedness and subjectivity of which we ourselves are made.

 

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Even as the Curtains Rise

Tomorrow morning, Easter morning, I will choose a spot of the earth in which to lay our dear sister’s ashes. Taking a last look at her earthly remains, I will say a goodbye to those ashes I’ll never see again, a farewell that is, even now, crying out to be dramatized as ‘the last’ goodbye.  But it will not be that; for whatever place I choose will be a place I will look upon often, and where, whenever I look, I will be sure to see her.

As I sit at my computer, typing these words, thinking these thoughts, I realize this is the chair in which I sit for so many hours of the day and night.  This the window I look through more than any other.  What I see out this window is our garden, and beyond it, in the woods, ‘Friend’s Theater,’ where children’s imaginations are loosed to a freedom full of joy.  I think how much she once loved theater ever since she was a child and had that role as the child in Madame Butterfly and I think how much she might have liked Friend’s Theater, and how much the theater’s tag line “where friends do things for friends”  is my reply to a lesson that she taught me, as much as anyone alive.

She’d have felt joy in the smiles of the children who now take the stage there, as she once did.  She’d have felt joy in the smiles of the children who dance, as she once could, and in the smiles of those who simply sit, unable to stand, as she was unable to stand, and especially in the smiles of those who simply listen, unable to speak, or simply watch, unable to hear.  For day after day, our sister taught me how to participate in the joys of others, no matter how many ways their bodies tried to keep them from their happy flights.

Yes, I think I will lay her in that place.  I can see it from my window.  It will be the perfect place for her a place where I’ll never again think of saying goodbye, but always, again and again, a smiling ‘Hello.”  A place where I can sit with her my little sister, my lifelong friend, my wisdom teacher where I can share in her delight, anticipating and smiling even as the curtains rise.

Joe

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Snapshot of a Child

Readers of WMBW may know that Doctor Paul Czaja, one of our co-founders, has spent his life as a Montessori educator.  Today’s blog is something WMBW believes he wrote in a recent newsletter to his current community at the Island Village Montessori School:

To inspire me every day now to continue on this my life’s journey as a caring servant of every child whose company I share, I have placed on my desk a photograph of me at the peak of my career. It shows my very beginning as a person smiling in the spring sunshine of the Bronx. My twin brother, Peter, and I are sitting with our Mom there on a small bench placed before the small hedged garden right in front of our red brick home. Sunshine and shadows dance on our three happy smiling faces.

We were still kids; looks like we were just two going on three years of age. I say it depicts me clearly at the peak of my career for it is obvious that I was not a “me” yet, and a sacred innocence was plainly visible in my face. This old photograph reveals very obviously that my primary sense then was my seeing – my simple yet profound perceiving the sacredness of ordinary life right there in front of me, and you can see there in my face the overwhelming happiness I was feeling for all the wonderful things right there in that now of my life as a little child.

Much later when I had grown up and had become an existentialist philosopher and poet — a twenty somewhat year old graduate student at Fordham University in the Bronx still — I was encouraged by a professor to investigate just what the modern artists were striving to reveal to us. I dutifully went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and began to study the artistic renderings within their second floor galleries dedicated to Modern Art. I entered one small room in which was hung a single very large painting which was very simply a beautiful blue painted canvas with one diagonal swatch of red paint boldly and dramatically there — I almost heard it as a triumphant shout!

I sat on the bench there trying to grasp what this artist wanted to share with me, and suddenly I realized that I too had made just such a painting when I was only a toddler. I remembered crawling with a red crayon in my hand into our living room and there with great delight reaching out and making this upward very personal mark on the clean white wall next to the couch. I thrilled in the seeing of this singular contrast of my red crayon line and its sensuous waxy presence there on the flat pale wall. I do not recall if our mother was as pleased as I was, but this memory revealed in a flash just what this modern artist was wanting to convey: There is great meaning in one’s becoming a child again — there is a richness in recapturing the innocent epiphanies of first experiences — so sacred, for you are still at that time not yet a self-conscious “me” but totally open to what you are creating — to what you are communicating — to what you are actually living sharing that moment. The existentialist philosopher Buber had observed: “What counts is to know and to believe what one experiences and believes so directly that it can be translated into the life one lives.” That is who I was as a child — and that is what I wanted to always be all my life.

I offer a bi-weekly seminar in existential ethics for our middle school students. By round-table discussions evoked from selected case studies of real life situations in which a personal decision must be made of what is the right thing to be done, I foster an awareness in them that they each possess an innate potentiality to become a virtuous person by deciding to act kindly not selfishly, to be wise and not foolish. Having mastered the “Three Rs” they as they enter young adulthood are now ready to discover that becoming an empowered person requires the “Three Cs,” namely, the uniquely human act of honest communication that enables the creation of the almost mystical communion in which two “me s” wondrously become the kind of a “we” our hearts have always yearned for, and from that fruitful bonding of daily shared kindness is born a community that flourishes with the love and with the caring intelligence and with the creation of new beauty that brings true meaning to our whirling, silent, yet glorious universe.

So I meditate on the little boy that I was then when that snapshot was taken so many years ago, and I can see all these personal potentials that were already being actualized as I drank in life with my innocent seeing – and then as I turn to the children before me in this here and now, I strive all the more to join with our faculty and students in the creation of a true culture of compassion where we each come away from our daily encounters better and happier — which will be so evident by the look of kindness in our faces, by the gleam of joy in our eyes, and by the simple yet profound goodness of our greetings. Worthy of another snapshot!

— Paul Czaja

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“I’m Just Saying…”

Yesterday, I watched my grandson Jacob try to get his way.  I’ve forgotten the actual situation, but he kept using the word “just.”  As I listened to him I realized how often I’d heard not only him, but others, use the word “just” in just the same way.

It could have been something like, “Jacob, it’s time to clean up.”  — “I just want to play one more game.”

You’ve heard it: “Sally, please stop playing with your food.”  — “But I was just trying to get the fat part out.”

Or, “Big brother, can I join your game?”  — “Not right now.  I just need to finish what I’m doing first.”

Or, “Stop hitting me!”  — “I was just playing with you.”

Listening to Jacob use the word, I wondered about it, as it’s used in sentences like these, and I wondered if it was related to the word “just” as in “justice” – as in “Abraham Lincoln was a good and just man.”

Looking up the etymology on the internet, I found erudite discussion of the word’s origins in the French “juste,” and the latin “ius.” There was general agreement that all the many ways we use the word “just” are related.  They all, in the end, go back to the idea of justice.  But among all the cited examples – from several centuries of recorded usage in numerous languages – I saw not a mention of human nature, as I had witnessed it in my grandson: namely, how we use adjectives like “just” to “justify” ourselves.  We see it in children all the time, when something they’ve done is challenged and they seek to defend themselves by minimizing the seriousness of it.  To assert that they were “just” doing something is to say it was harmless – and, by implication, not deserving of disapproval.

An adult friend of mine often uses the concept generically, intentionally not finishing the sentence.  He uses it when even a subtle, raised eyebrow suggests skepticism about something he’s just said.  His usual response:   “Just sayin’…”

The problem with self-justification is that it knows no natural bounds.  It’s an elixir that never quite quenches the thirst.  Sally’s assertion that she wasn’t playing with her food, she was just trying to separate the good stuff from the fatty part, is not only a minimization of any harm done, it’s the beginning of an argument that she was actually engaged in a worthwhile pursuit.  “I was doing a good thing…”  “I was just” doing what I was doing means, in effect, “I was justly” doing what I was doing.

One of my favorite meditations on word origins involves the meaning of a different word, the word  “want.”  Its original meaning, coming from old Norse, was the lack of something. We hear it used that way rarely these days, but the word is still occasionally seen in its former sense: “The old house was in want of repair.”  “His manners were seriously wanting.”  “For want of a better location, we had our picnic in a cemetery.”

From the meaning “lack” came the meaning “need,” since we sometimes see a need for what we lack.  Only from that did the word come to mean “desire” – since we so often desire what we lack (whether we need it or not).  Language doesn’t often change because some writer or linguist makes a conscious decision to change it.  It changes gradually and unconsciously, as everyday people apply a familiar word in new situations – situations that carry context, connotation and stretch.  As I see it, the more often people of the past said that they lacked something, the more often – human nature being what it is – there was a strong sense that they desired it.  Their listeners naturally assumed that the reason they were saying they lacked it was because they desired it.  I believe the close relationship between the concepts, as a matter of human psychology — the fact that people do so often desire what they lack — is what enabled the word’s meaning to slide from one into the other, so that today, where we can hope to obtain just about everything, we barely remember that “want” once meant “lack.”  Every time I hear a grandchild, buried in a pile of accumulated toys, say he or she wants some new one, I’m apt to think how naturally we human beings no longer want what we have, but nearly always want what we lack.

So too with “just.”  Originally meaning anything that was proper,  correct, or exactly so (the “just law” or “It is impossible to say just what I mean” (T.S. Eliot)), the word came to be used to assert that something is just, even when it’s not – again because of natural human psychology.  Just grows and stretches like an old sock, as we claim that more and more fits the description.  It’s like the way the word “literally” is currently widened to include things that are not, in fact, literally true, like the person who says, “He literally killed me with one joke after another…”

The evolution of our words tells us a lot about the kind of people we are. Our use of just tells us how automatically we seek to justify ourselves.  Our use of want informs us about our hard-wired cupidity.  Our use of “literally” shows how much we use language to serve our own exaggerated goals.

Two of my five siblings had severe learning disabilities.  My parents told me how blessed I was in comparison, that God had given me a good brain.  The blessing, I was told, carried a heavy responsibility not to waste that talent; I might someday have to care for my less intelligent siblings.  It was heady stuff for a little boy, and in retrospect, it started me on my way to being the arrogant man I became.  Meanwhile, God had blessed the entire human race, giving us “dominion” over all the birds of the air and fish of the sea.  After all, we were made in God’s image, while whales, dolphins and chimpanzees were not.  As a species, we have souls, and with our souls and our superior intelligence, we have a moral obligation to those less fortunate than ourselves, do we not?

Perhaps obviously so.  But the doctrine of Noblesse Oblige carries its own dangers, as “superior intelligence” or “superior morality” justify our making things go the way we think they ought to.   Pope Nicholas V authorized the taking of pagan slaves by explaining his purpose to enable the enslaver to “bring the sheep entrusted to him by God into the single divine fold,” and to “acquire for them the reward of eternal felicity, and obtain pardon for their souls.”[1] Noblesse oblige lay behind the court’s ruling in The United States v. La Jeune Eugenie, 26 F. Cases. 832 (D. Mass. 1822) that slavery benefited slaves by saving them from the savagery of their own religion.  And it lay behind the words of Augustus B. Longstreet, a president of the University of Mississippi, when his moral obligation to take care of unfortunate heathen savages (Africans) caused him to complain to his son-in-law: “The creatures persistently refuse to live together as man and wife, even after I have mated them with all the wisdom I possess, and built them such desirable homes.”

It’s easy to see the blind wrongness in others when they think themselves wise.  How common is that same blindness among the rest of us?  How much do we risk when, with intellectual and moral superiority, we literally just want what we think best?

— Joe

[1] Romanus Pontifex, 1454

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How Smart Are We?

Linnaeus caused a stir when he included human beings in the animal kingdom, even though he flattered us with the name homo sapiens.  Charles Darwin caused a similar stir, though he asserted “there can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense…”  But calling ourselves wise hasn’t been enough for most of us.  Our Bibles put us above mere animals, on a level just below the angels.  Even our scientists weren’t satisfied with Linnaeus; they further differentiated us from other homo sapiens because of our superior intelligence – never mind that we mated with Neanderthals.  The scientific world now bestows on us the title “homo sapiens sapiens” – not just wise, but doubly-wise.

When we were children, we were treated to many proofs of Man’s superior intelligence: we alone use tools; we alone have language; we alone care for our young so long; we alone can learn independently; we alone can solve new problems not encountered before; we alone have culture; we alone engage in entertainment, art, and play.  After it became obvious that these distinctions were proving false, people became more cautious.  A recent list of the top ten traits that set us apart from other animals shows how much ground has been conceded.  Charles Q. Choi, contributing to Live Science in 2016, listed the top ten distinctions as our speech, our upright posture, our lack of body hair, the fact we wear clothing, that we have “extraordinary brains,” that we have precise hands, that we make fire, that we blush, that we have long (if dependent) childhoods, and that we live past child-bearing age.[1] In creating that list, Choi acknowledged that we’re not the only animals that speak, we just speak differently; that our upright posture is responsible for high childbirth mortality rates compared to other primates; that we have as much body hair as other primates, but ours is thinner, shorter, and lighter; that while we have opposable thumbs, the apes do too, plus they have opposable big toes that do things ours cannot.  Blushing, and living past our reproductive usefulness, may be the only things that really sets us apart, but we don’t yet understand what good these things do us.

Distinctions such as Choi’s make us different, but do they make us superior?  For many religious, the claim that we’re superior depends first on our “souls,” which, despite a lack of proof for their existence, many of us believe in the way we believe in our superior intelligence.  When it comes to that intelligence, Choi acknowledges that our brains are not the largest.  But our brains, he tells us, are “extraordinary” because they can produce the works of Mozart and Einstein.  And as any human being will tell you, Mozart is more beautiful than the screeching and moaning of a whale.  As any human being will tell you, it takes a higher intelligence to develop an atom bomb than it does to fly like a bat.

But do such judgments tell us more about our vanity than our intelligence?  Consider our history of assessing animal intelligence.  In 2013, the Wall Street Journal published a wonderful article by primate researcher Frans de Waal.  For years, de Waal wrote, scientists believed elephants incapable of using tools – one of the classic “proofs” of human intelligence.  In earlier studies, the elephants had been offered a long stick while food was placed outside their reach to see if they would use the stick to retrieve it, as people (and chimpanzees) were able to do. When the elephants left the stick alone, the researchers concluded that the elephants didn’t understand the problem. “It occurred to no one,” wrote De Waal, “that perhaps we, the investigators, didn’t understand the elephants.” Elephants use their trunks to smell, not just to hold branches.  As soon as an elephant picks up a stick, its nasal passages are blocked and it can’t tell what’s food and what isn’t.  So years passed before researchers decided to vary the test.  But when they put a sturdy square box out of sight, a good distance away, the elephant easily retrieved it, nudging it all the way to the tree, and used it to reach the fruit with a trunk that could now smell, and touch, and approve, the fruit.

Even more anthropocentric, in retrospect, is the research on chimpanzees’ abilities to recognize faces.  For years, scientists had been giving chimps pictures of human faces, and when chimps failed to distinguish among them, researchers happily concluded that the “unique” human ability to recognize faces had not been matched by the chimps.  It took decades before someone thought to test chimps on the basis of their ability to recognize the faces of other chimps, and when they did. They discovered that chimps were amazingly good, not just at recognizing faces, but using them to extrapolate to family relationships!  And with improvements in testing methods, de Waal wrote, a 2007 study showed chimpanzees did significantly better than a group of university students at remembering a random series of numbers.[2]

The accepted idea is that “intelligence” involves the capacity to learn.  But to learn what?   If I can learn calculus easily but am helpless learning to play the piano, does that make me smarter than my counterpart with the opposite aptitudes, or less so?  Am I “smarter” than Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, or less so?  If people learn different sorts of things at different speeds, then is there any basis to say that one is smarter than another, without “smartness” being related to a particular skill?  I once thought a fair answer might be that an individual could be considered “smarter” if she easily learned those things that are important  as opposed to the eccentric who has an aptitude for odd or useless things.   If I can learn to build a house, or a car, easily, but my friend was able to play the piano the first time his hands touched the keys, the question of who’s “smarter” might depend on which skill is more useful to a typical human being.  Indeed, standardized testing still exists in K-12 because it is useful in predicting success in college.  This utilitarian approach to intelligence made at least some sense to me – until I sought to apply it to the rest of the animal kingdom.

What does science tell us about the relative intelligence of animals?  Finding a raft of “top ten” lists on the internet, the first thing I noticed was their lack of consensus.  Several sources rated chimpanzees the smartest animals; others dolphins, whales, elephants, and pigs.  But the variety of nominees was striking: top-ten lists included parrots, dogs, cats, squirrels, rats, crows, pigeons, orangutans, gibbons, baboons, gorillas, otters, ants, bees, ravens, ducks, cows, bonobos, and octopi, each list focusing on different skill sets or aptitudes.  I quickly decided that the lack of IQ testing on Noah’s ark wasn’t the only reason people can’t agree on what makes an animal smart.  There’s no universally-accepted definition of intelligence for species, any more than there is for humans.

Clearly, we do some things better than other animals.  In fact, as we look around our world, we see examples of such things all around us.  But I suspect that from a dog’s perspective, the variety of sounds and smells he’s aware of, that we are not, makes it seem to him he’s aware of a great deal more in the world than we are.  What he sees all around him is equally full of confirmations of what he can appreciate, that we cannot. When we speak of our intelligence, when we give as examples Einstein and Mozart, what should I make of my assumption that a whale sees nothing special about Einstein?  And how would I know whether the whale appreciates Mozart?  Is it possible whales are simply bored by the ‘inferior’ sounds they see Mozart to be?  I’m quite sure, meanwhile, that I’m incapable of appreciating the ways whales communicate with each other.  Is it objective to conclude that we’re “smarter” because we understand the complexities of Mozart?

How is it we put so much stock in our ability to do the things we do well, and so little stock in the “unimportant” (to us) things we don’t do as well as other animals — like turn into a butterfly that can navigate its way back to a birthplace thousands of miles away?  Sure, a dog may not be able to learn Einstein’s theories.  But we’re not able to learn how to listen or smell with a dog’s acuity — even though dogs have been trying to teach us how to do so for centuries, by modeling it for us?  Why don’t we conclude we’re slow learners?

The second observation I made during my review of the “smartest animal” lists was that, in commenting on why these species were considered especially smart, list after list referred to the nominee’s similarities to us.

Take, for example, the reasons given by Mercola.com for ranking chimpanzees the most intelligent animals: “Chimps … like humans, live in social communities and can adapt to different environments…  Chimpanzees can walk upright on two legs if they choose…”[3]  (Surely most scientists don’t believe that walking upright has anything to do with intelligence.  (Am I wrong here, Stephen Hawking?)

In explaining why it ranks dolphins the second smartest (right after chimps), How Stuff Works tells us, “Schools of dolphins can be observed in the world’s oceans surfing, racing, leaping, spinning, whistling and otherwise enjoying themselves.”  Okay…  And why does it rank Elephants fourth smartest?  “Elephants are also extremely caring and empathetic to other members of their group and to other species, which is considered a highly advanced form of intelligence.”[4]  About chimps, CBS says their number one ranking is “Perhaps not entirely surprising given that chimpanzees happen to be the closest living relatives to humans in the animal kingdom.”

The CBS website makes a truly remarkable assertion based on the difference in the brains of dolphins and human beings:  “Turns out that like the other animal species in this gallery, dolphins possess large brains relative to their body size with a neocortex that is more convoluted than a human’s. Experts say that this puts dolphins just behind the human brain when it comes to cognitive capacity.”  If, as I understand, a convoluted brain surface is an indication of intelligence, how does the greater convolution of the dolphin brain put the dolphin behind us, rather than ahead of us?[5]  Is it because our inability to understand their squeaks renders their speech “gibberish,” much as E=mc2 might seem gibberish to them?

Having eyes behind our heads, or a third arm projecting from our backs, could be very useful to us in the right situations.  Yet we’re happy to be without them.  However, if we were to lose the sight of an eye or one of our arms, we might feel some tragedy had befallen us.  Why is it that we don’t regret not having eyes in the backs of our heads?  Why do we not lament the lack of a third arm – or the fact that we lack the olfactory prowess of a dog, or the sonar of a bat?  I’ll bet that if our noses could do what a dog’s can, our ability to distinguish thousands of things based on a just a few molecules in the air would rank among the first reasons that humans are the smartest animals.

So my dilemma is this: what happens if we try to remove any anthropocentric bias from our assessment of intelligence?  Is there a species-neutral standard by which to assess such things?  The more I consider the matter, the more I’m drawn to the possibility that the only definition by which one species can be said to be more intelligent than another is to ask how well-suited its unique talents are to ensuring its survival.  Measured that way, homo sapiens sapiens has done pretty well for itself, at least in the hundred thousand years it’s been around.  Maybe there’ve been a few times we haven’t seemed so bright – but hey, what’s an error like thinking that the entire universe revolves around the earth, when we can figure out how to make chemicals like DDT or fill the planet with gas-powered automobiles?  Have we not been successful, filling the earth with billions of copies of ourselves?  Some say that a measure of human intelligence is our extraordinary ability to adapt to new environments.  Have we not, after all, proven our ability to adapt to different environments? [6]

The four animals most commonly found at the top of the “smartest animals” lists I found were chimpanzees (and other primates), dolphins (and whales, porpoises, and other aquatic mammals), elephants, and pigs.  But most of the species in these groups are endangered.  If they really are similar to us, and they really are endangered, then what conclusions should we draw?  That like the great apes, we too are near extinction?  Or does the fact that we are responsible for the near extinction of most of these species mean that we are smarter than they are, and very different, after all?

Of course, not all the “similar” species are nearing extinction.  Dolphins are doing well, apparently.  Domesticated pigs are flourishing.  But before concluding that pigs have been “smart” to prosper so that they can end up on our dinner tables in such large numbers, if the true intelligence of a species is best evidenced by long term growth and survival, why do we find all the “intelligent” animals among mammalia?

It is nearly impossible to calculate the number of cockroaches that exist worldwide due to the fact that so many already exist and are reproducing at such a fast pace. Scientists believe that there are over 4,000 species around the world and there are at least 40 different species that exist in America. One source suggests that 36,000 cockroaches exist per building in some parts of America.[7]

Cockroaches have also been around for 300 million years – three thousand times longer than homo sapiens — and could easily survive a nuclear winter.[8]

But it simply isn’t acceptable to suggest that cockroaches are smarter than people.  Obviously, all mammals are smarter than insects; all primates are smarter than other mammals; all humans are smarter than other primates; and the smartest people in the world are those whose religious, political, and other beliefs all happen to match my own.  But doggone it, I still can’t figure out what makes us so extraordinarily smart.  Maybe someday we’ll figure it out, the way we finally figured out that the earth isn’t at the center of the Universe.

—Joe


[1] Charles Q. Choi, Top Ten Things That Makes Humans Special, http://www.livescience.com/15689-evolution-human-special-species.html 

[2] De Waal, Fran, The Brains of the Animal Kingdom, Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323869604578370574285382756

[3] Dr. Karen Becker, The Most Surprisingly Smart Animals,  http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2015/08/22/10-most-intelligent-animals.aspx

[4] Top Ten Smartest Animals,  http://animals.howstuffworks.com/animal-facts/10-smartest-animals.htm

[5] CBS News, Nature’s 5 Smartest Animal Species,  http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/natures-5-smartest-animal-species/5/

[6] I love that phrase “after all.”  Adaptability to different environments is indeed an oft-cited reason supporting human intelligence, but after only a hundred thousand years, it might be wiser to substitute the more accurate “so far” for “after all.”

[7] Larry Yundelson, Number of Cockroaches, The Physics Factbook, http://hypertextbook.com/facts/2009/LarryYundelson.shtml 

[8] See Zidbits, Can Cockroaches Survive a Nuclear Winter?  http://zidbits.com/2011/09/can-cockroaches-survive-a-nuclear-winter/

 

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Love Hurts

Want a good laugh?  WMBW isn’t all somber reality. Sometimes, we just need to laugh.

This six-minute video, called “Love Hurts,” is actually pretty funny.   It reminds me that sometimes, when we’re up to our ears in bad news and worry, it’s funny to realize we’re wrong.

Thank you, Pat Carmody, for sharing it with us.

— Joe

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Comparing Apples and Oranges

You know: the very point of saying “it’s like comparing apples and oranges” is that it’s difficult, maybe even impossible, to do so, because —well —because they’re just not the same.  Consider this picture:

 

Forty-nine apples and one orange.   If I put all this fruit in a bag, mix it up and pull one piece out at random, the odds will be 49 to 1 that I’ll pull out an apple.  That is, 49 to 1 against the orange.

Now a question for you: Assuming a random draw, will I be surprised if I pull out an apple?  Answer: no, I won’t.  I fully expect to pull out an apple, due to the odds.  I assume you wouldn’t be surprised either.  I also assume we’d both be surprised if I pulled out the orange, for the same reason.  Am I right?

Now,  I feel as I do without qualification — by which I mean, for example, that if I pick out the orange, my surprise won’t be greater or less depending on whether the orange weighs nine ounces or ten, and I won’t be surprised if I pull an apple from the bag, regardless of the number of leaves on its stem.   The fact is I expect an apple, and as long as I get an apple, I’ll have no cause for surprise.  Right?

But now another question, and this one’s a little harder. What are the odds of my picking out an apple with two leaflets on its stem?  You can scroll back and look at the picture if you want, but try to answer the question without doing so: what are the odds of my picking an apple with two leaflets on its stem?

Ready?

Alright. Hard, wasn’t it?  If you went back to look at the picture, you found there was only one apple with two leaflets on its stem. Knowing that, you determined that the odds against my picking that particular apple were 49:1, the same odds as existed against my picking the orange.  Yet it’s pretty clear, as already determined, I would have been surprised if I’d picked the orange, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d picked the only apple in the bag with two leaflets on its stem.

My real question, then, is why the difference?  And the only answer that makes sense to me comes not from probability theory, but from psychology.  I’m surprised if I draw the orange because, being mindful of the differences between the orange and the apples, I expected an apple. But not being mindful of the uniqueness of the two-leafed apple, I lumped all the apples together and treated them as if they were all the same.  I focused on the fact that the odds against the orange were 49:1, while never forming a similar expectation about the improbability of choosing the two-leafed apple.

Here, then, is my conclusion:  In pulling fruit from the bag, the actual improbability of every single piece of fruit is the same. Yet the perceived improbability of choosing the orange is far greater than the perceived improbability of drawing the two-leafed apple, because… well… because I hadn’t been paying attention to the differences among the apples.

Also, the division of the 50 pieces of fruit into only two categories – apples and oranges – was a subjective choice.  I could have grouped the fruit into large and small, or into three groups based on relative sweetness.  Or according to the number of leaves on the stem, in which case the orange would have been in a group with twenty apples.

Now, in any group of 50 pieces of fruit, no two are going to be exactly alike – the two-leafedness of one will be matched by the graininess of another, the seed count of a third, the sweetness of a fourth, and so on.  But we elect to ignore (or de-emphasize) a whole slew of possible differences, in order to focus on one or two traits.  Only by ignoring (or at least de-emphasizing) other differences do we construct a homogeneous group, treating all 49 of the red fruits the same for purposes of comparison to the orange one — treating them all as “apples” rather than one or two McIntosh, one or two sweet ones, etc.  That’s why I’m not surprised when I pick out that one, unique apple, despite the 49:1 odds against it.

Now consider a related point: that (subjective) decision about what criteria to base comparisons on, while ignoring other criteria, not only explains why we’re surprised if we select the orange, but how we estimate odds in the first place.  In fact, if we consider all their attributes, every piece of fruit is unique. The odds against picking any one are 49:1.  Yet, if we only focus on the uniqueness of the orange, our impression of odds will be vastly different than if we focus on fruit size, or sweetness, or seed count.

It isn’t some sort of unalterable constant of nature that determines how we perceive odds – it’s what we’re mindful of, and our resulting (subjective) expectations.

In an earlier post, Goldilocks and the Case Against Reality, I wrote of the concept that the limited focus which characterizes our brains has been useful to us.  (If I could see every part of the electro-magnetic spectrum, I’d be overwhelmed with information overload, so I’m advantaged by only being able to see visible light.)  My brain is just too small and slow to deal with all the information out there.  Even if I’d happened to notice there was only one two-leafed apple, I could never have taken the time to absorb all the differences among the forty-nine apples.  Compare that, say, to the difficulty of absorbing the different facial features of every person on this tiny, one-among-trillions planet.  I cope with reality by ignoring vast complexities of things I don’t understand, lumping a lot of very special things into groups for the very reason I can’t get my brain to focus on all their differences.

Now, this lesson about comparing apples and oranges teaches me something about God, and I hope you’ll give me a chance to explain.

The astronomer Fred Hoyle is said to have written, “The probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747.”  Hoyle apparently used the improbability of life as an argument for the theory of intelligent design. Hoyle’s statement was then quoted in The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), by the atheist Richard Dawkins, who said that the “improbability” of life is readily explained by Darwinian evolution, and declared, “The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist.”

Now, whether either of these beliefs makes sense to me, I’ll leave for another day.  My focus is on trying to understand any argument based the “improbability” of life, and its because of what I’ve learned from the fruit.

I agree that the odds are against a hurricane assembling a 747, and against life’s existence exactly as it is today.  But is my surprised reaction to such improbabilities any different than my surprise at the random drawing of an orange, but not at the two-leafed apple?  Imagine, for a moment, that some other configuration of scrap parts had been left in the hurricane’s wake – one that appeared entirely “random” to me.  Upon careful inspection, I find that a piece of thread from the pilot’s seat lies in the precise middle of what was once the scrap heap.  A broken altimeter lies 2 meters NNE of there.  The knob of the co-pilot’s throttle abuts a palm frond 14.83 inches from that.  The three hinges of the luggage compartment door have formed an acute triangle, which (against all odds) points precisely north; the latch from the first class lavatory door is perched atop the life jacket from Seat 27-B….

I trust you get the picture.  Complex?  Yes.  Unique?  Yes.  So I ask, what are the odds the triangle of hinges would point exactly north?  The odds against that alone seem high, and if we consider the odds against every other location and angle, once all the pieces of scrap have been located, what are the odds that every single one of them would have ended up in precisely the configuration they did?

In retrospect, was it just the assembly of the 747 that was wildly against the odds?  It seems to me that every unique configuration of parts is improbable, and astronomically so.  Among a nearly infinite set of possible outcomes, any specific arrangement ought to surprise me, no?  Yet I’m only surprised at the assembly of the 747.  What I expect to see in the aftermath of the hurricane is a helter-skelter mess, and I’m only surprised when I don’t.

But on what do I base my expectation of seeing “a helter-skelter mess?” Indeed, what IS a “helter-skelter mess”?  Doesn’t that term really mean “all those unique and unlikely arrangements I lump together because, like the apples, I’m unmindful of the differences between them, unmindful of the reasons for those differences, ignorant of how and why they came to be as they are?”

Suppose, instead, that with the help of a new Super-Brain, I could not only understand all the relevant principles of physics, all the relevant data – the location, size, shape and weight of every piece of scrap in the heap before the storm — and suppose further that when the storm came, I understood the force and direction of every molecule in the air, etc.  With all that data, wouldn’t I be able to predict exactly where the pieces of scrap would end up?  In that case, would any configuration seem improbable to me?  I suggest the answer is no.  There’d be one configuration I’d see as certain, and the others would all be patently impossible.

Compare it to a deck of cards.  We can speak of the odds against dealing a certain hand because the arrangement of cards in the shuffled deck is unknown to us.  Once the cards have been dealt, I can tell you with certainty what the odds were that they’d be dealt as they were: it was a certainty, given the order they had previously taken in the deck.  And if I’d known the precise arrangement of the cards in the deck before it was dealt, I could say, with certainty, how they would be dealt.  Perfect hindsight and foreknowledge are alike in that neither admit of probabilities; in each case — in a state of complete understanding — there are only certainties and impossibilities. The shuffling of a deck of cards doesn’t mean that any deal of particular cards is possible, it means that we, the subjective observers, are now ignorant of the arrangement that has resulted. The very concepts of luck, probability and improbability are constructs of our limited brains.  Assessments of probability have developed as helpful ways for human beings to cope, because we live in a world of unknowns.

Now, let’s return to the scrap heap, one more time.  But this time, we don’t have an all-knowing Super-Brain.  This time, we’re just a couple of ants, crawling across the site after the hurricane has left.  On the off-chance that the hurricane has left a fully assembled 747, would we be mindful of how incredibly unlikely that outcome had been?  I suspect not. A 747 has no usefulness or meaning for an ant, so we probably wouldn’t notice the structure involved, the causes and purposes of each part being where it is. From our perspective as ants, that assembled 747 might as well be a helter-skelter mess — an array of meaningless unknowns.

Now, after traversing the 747, something else catches our little ant eyes. Immediately, we scramble up the side of the anthill, plunge into the entrance, race down the pathway to the Queen’s deep chamber, and announced with excitement that something truly amazing has happened.

“It’s surely against astronomical odds,” I say. “I wouldn’t believe it myself, had I not seen it with my own two eyes!”

“What is it?” the Queen’s courtiers demand to know.

“A great glass jar of sweet jelly has appeared,” you say, “just outside the entrance to our anthill!  That jelly could have landed anywhere in the jungle.  What are the odds it would land just outside the entrance to our hill?  A thousand to one?  A million to one?  There must be a reason…”

Well, there probably is some reason, it seems to me.  But the difference in approaches taken by people and ants to the perceived “improbabilities” here reminds me of comparing apples to oranges.  It’s not just that apples are different from oranges.  Whether “God” made us or not, we’re all unique, in many, many ways.  Some of us — I’ll call them the oranges — attribute perceived improbability to “plain ol’ luck.” Others, like one-leafed apples, attribute it to intelligent design.  Others, like leafless apples, say that improbability nearly proves the non-existence of God.  I say, what we perceive as improbable depends on whether we’re ants or people.  Our surprise varies widely, depending on the criteria we’re (subjectively) mindful of.  But as unique as we are, we’re all alike in one respect: we all have limited brains, and that’s why we need concepts like probability —to cope with our profound lack of understanding.

So, call me a two-leafed apple if you like, but when I encounter the improbable — the fact that the grains of sand on a beach happen to be arranged exactly as they are, and the snowflakes in a blizzard move exactly as they do — I try to remember that what I experience as “randomness” is just a name I give to what I can’t get my mind around.  “Improbability” tells me nothing about God, one way or the other, except that, if God does exist, she gave me a brain that’s incapable of fully understanding the uniqueness of things, or why any of it exists.

And I’m okay with that.

— Joe

 

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Self Reflection

What follows was submitted to the WMBW website as a comment on one of my earlier posts.  I was moved by it; I wanted to share it; so I got the author’s permission to post it as a guest blog in its own right.  My old friend, Ron Beuch, has clearly been doing some honest self-examination. I’m pleased to be able to share what he wrote:

The old man sits at the bench in his favorite sweats, the one with the hoodie.  (A friend gave it to him for helping to build a stone water feature for his patio.) The overhead garage door is closed because the wind is blowing and the temperature is around freezing. This limits his light to the overhead LED spots that he installed recently.

Surrounded by the stuff of forty years, he hears the rattling of the doors and thinks of the sixty foot black walnut tree that fell on his stuff last summer. He puts aside his newly acquired paranoia of wind and inspects the silver he has been tasked to rescue, two wine goblets, two dinner forks, two dinner knives and a large serving fork. The wife has bumped his quota because she knows that speed comes with experience.

As he polishes these items he reflects on the memories connected to them, the romantic dinners with his wife, the family dinners on holidays, the parties with friends. The memory of his drinking problem dims the glow for a moment, but fortunately he won that battle. The white noise of the space heater warming his feet competes with the tintinitis that is buzzing like a summer evening in the background. As he dives closer in focus to the depths of the shine to see the blemishes that might mar the surface, his memory does the same with his past. When inspecting his psyche, some of the smallest details of his biggest party fouls surface.

“Who’s kids are those?”

“Whose tree is that?”

“I didn’t know sports bras came in that size.”

He can’t help but feel better when he compares these to what is coming out of the TV today.

Thanks, Ron.

 

-Joe

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