The origin of myth

Once, long ago, before the world became round and full of rocks, Noman and Nowoman were sitting around talking.

“Why don’t we have any myths?” said Noman.

“What’s a myth?”

“I don’t know, but it seems like we ought to have at least one, if not more.”

Nowoman pondered this for a long moment, or what would have been a long moment if moments had been invented.

“Well,” she finally replied, “let’s say you’re right. How do we go about getting one or two if we don’t know what that is?”

“We’ll go and look for it. When we find it, we’ll know.” said Noman. Nowoman looked at him like he was crazy but held her tongue.

And so they set off in all directions at once, since there was no time to define things like that. But as they walked, Earth formed beneath them, and in their footsteps, water and all the mysterious things that live in water, and green sprouted all around them. And all that they gazed upon in wonder became stars, and their love of these things the sun, so terrible in its warmth and light that a moon was needed to share the day with.

“I don’t know,” said Noman. “This stuff is so good, maybe we don’t need a myth.”

But Nowoman shook her head. “Now that we’ve started we have to go on.”

And so they did. The earth shook and trembled, and water fell from nowhere, which was called the sky, with clouds so soft they could kill for no reason. All at once they noticed they were not alone. Small things, large things, fuzzy things and hard pointed things, all moving along with them. Some they loved and some they hated, some they fed and some they ate. And from their bodies came the bodies of the wild and the tame alike.

Finally, after a time so long there could be no one to remember it, they got tired for the first time ever. They sat down at the rim of the world and shed sweat and tears into the vastness, and this was the ocean.

Noman was discouraged. “I thought we could find a myth, but we haven’t.”

But Nowoman said, “We have a sea to sail, and a story to tell.”

They looked at each other in surprise, and suddenly knew they had their myth. They laughed so long and hard, that all the birds joned them, and they still sing the myth of beginning.

“Well, that was fun,” said Noman. “Now what?”


“What’s love?”

And Nowoman smiled the most beautiful smile he had ever seen.

Thorns, odds, and the impossible

A few years ago I was walking on a disused path in some woods near where I live, when I noticed a small branch that seemed to have attached itself to my foot. When I looked more closely, I saw about an inch of thorn sticking up through my boot just in front of the ball of my foot.

This was a genuine official hiking boot with about an inch and a half to two inches of combined Vibram outsole and orthotic insole, and a Gore-Tex and nylon upper. Needless to say, I was dumbfounded. How had a thorn managed to penetrate all that? More to the point, how had it penetrated my foot without my feeling it?

I pulled out the thorn; it was easily four or five inches long and almost a quarter of an inch thick at its base. A honey locust, I figured, although I hadn’t seen one with thorns quite that big. As I tossed the branch away from the path, it occurred to me that I’d better get a look at my injury before too long. A little way further up the path I found a convenient log, sat down, and gingerly removed the shoe, fully expecting to see a slowly expanding patch of red where the thorn had come through. When I looked, I realized why I hadn’t felt anything.

The damned thing had passed precisely between my big toe and its neighbor as far back as it could without hitting flesh. When I say precisely, I mean there was no evidence of its passage whatsoever — not blood, not broken skin, not so much as a minor scratch.

What, as they say, were the odds of that happening? Well, I maintain that, since it had actually occurred, the odds must have been 100%.

You could calculate the odds as a hypothetical exercise, taking into account such variables as the average number of dead branches small enough to go unnoticed on a disused path, the percentage of those likely to have huge thorns, the probability of such a thorn lying at the precise angle required to use the force of a footfall to penetrate a sturdy shoe. You’d also have to take into account the width of the path, the length of my stride, the size of the shoe, the total area of the sole, and so on. Then you could come up with some number, which would surely be vanishingly small.

And yet, it happened. You might be familiar with the concept of the black swan, popularized in a book of that title by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’m not interested in the failings of statistics which do not take all of the significant variables into account; it may be true that probability calculations can be improved by using the proper data. My point is that even when all knowable variables are taken into account, you can still end up on the wrong side of the conclusion.

Why is that? It’s simple. Statistics are descriptive, not predictive. They describe in detail past events in similar contexts to the one you’re interested in. In the end, any conclusion you draw is based on inductive reasoning, which by its nature is vulnerable to data gaps. When an event actually occurs, such as my adventure with the thorn, it becomes data, and statistical inference is irrelevant to it. The question, “What are the odds of that?” is pointless.

Does that mean that judging risk on the basis of probability is useless? Not at all. But it is why the severity of a negative outcome is so important in the decision process.

If I have a 10% chance of spilling wine on my shirt, that’s not going to stop me from drinking some. But if I have a 10% chance of dying if I get Covid-19, that’s a different story.

True colors?

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about peace activists during the Vietnam war.  The gist of it was that whether or not to go into the military was a difficult decision back then, and that motivations varied from person to person regarding that decision.  Many activists were sincere in their opposition to the war, but many more were simply saving themselves, and got into the anti-war effort as a justification.  My own decision to join was similarly motivated by personal considerations.  I was not a believer in the cause either way, really; my parents had fled the Soviet Union and were no fans of communism, and I couldn’t bring myself to break their hearts.

Anyway, a friend of long standing took exception to something I said in the comments in response to a reader’s comment, expressing disappointment that I would say such a thing; what it was is not relevant to this post.  What is relevant is that our relationship has changed since then.  It got me to thinking about our default thinking about our fellow humans, perhaps even ourselves.

We seem to begin with the assumption that people are intrinsically bad, and while we’re willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, we accept the first bit of evidence, even the flimsiest at times, of their inherent wickedness.  Once done, there’s no going back.

It’s easy enough to see this as a reflection of the teachings of the dominant religions in the world; we are wicked, unworthy, and can only be saved by supernatural intervention.  If left to our own devices, we are condemned to eternal, horrifying anguish, and, what’s more, we deserve it.

It might be more insightful to turn this explanation around.  Religions are the reflections (and amplifications) of our natural tendencies.

Why on earth would that be a feature of our nature?  I think the evolution of our social co-dependency goes a long way toward explaining it, and the key to understanding it is that, conversely, we tend to resist thinking ill of our closest friends and relatives, no matter how much evidence there is for it.  The result is the coalescing of the core social group, while pushing outward those at the periphery.  In short, it’s not wise to trust someone you don’t know very well, and who might have an allegiance to another group.  Historically, or rather, prehistorically, I suppose, our welfare was intimately tied to the welfare of our core group.  When agriculture developed and spawned urban civilization, groups became much larger and intertwined in a complex way; it’s no accident that religion as we know it developed precisely then.  Originally, there was no distinction between religion and ideology, it all served the same purpose: as the glue that bound together these larger, more complex social groups.  It’s not surprising that the precepts and values under this new situation would be the same as those we had for the 2 or 3 million years of our existence as hunters and gatherers.  They represent the sow’s ear from which we fashioned our silk purses.

Have we outgrown the utility of such conventions?  No doubt, but there seems little we can do about it beyond just being aware of it.  Evolution is a matter of more generations than we’ve had to deal with all the changes we’ve wrought upon ourselves.

How to be a proper fool

But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round

To be the best, most complete fool you can be, follow these steps faithfully, in the proper order

  1. Read voraciously, everything you can get your hands on, sacred or profane, it doesn’t matter, just be a sponge.
  2. Apply your best critical thinking skills to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  3. Seek out the most knowledgeable people in every field, make their acquaintance, and don’t be shy about disagreeing with them.
  4. Examine the world’s religions, from the simplest animism to the most convoluted monotheism.  Talk to both believers and infidels, converts and apostates.
  5. Travel as extensively as possible, “trying on” various cultures, sorting through the good and the bad aspects of each.
  6. Avoid making pronouncements about your conclusions, realizing your remarks will be misinterpreted at best, and turned to evil ends at worst.
  7. Having done all of that, isolate yourself from others, to avoid contamination of your insights.
  8. Practice deep meditation and introspection.
  9. Realize that after a lifetime of learning and accumulating wisdom, you have shared all of this with no one, from a false modesty arising from a deep-seated fear of being wrong.
  10. Die.


Occam’s bludgeon

I’ve been reading a lot lately on the nature of time and space from the perspective of physics, and I cannot help thinking of the drunk looking for his car keys under a streetlamp. Asked by a passerby where he last saw them, he replies, “In that dark alley.”

“Really?” asks the bystander. “Then why are you looking here?”

“Because the light’s better!”

To a physicist, mathematics is the light. It is the hammer for which all problems resemble a nail. It is the hail and farewell of a journey not taken.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware and appreciative of the power of mathematics.  Without it, I couldn’t be “writing” this post — tapping on plastic bumps, confident that not only will the resultant deviations of light on an entirely separate slab in front of me configure themselves to reflect my thoughts, but also send mysterious invisible waves into the night so that you can see those same squiggles on your slab.  But the formulas that describe these processes are not identical to the processes themselves, as phenomena in the real world.  They are models, or

… task-driven, purposeful simplification[s] and abstraction[s] of a perception of reality … [emphasis mine]

In other words, take out all the messy, inconvenient bits and see if you can’t come up with something useful.  There have been powerful models of reality throughout history that have enabled marvelous results, and that we have since decided are inaccurate.  I need only mention shamanism and acupuncture.  And even physicists, despite all their rhapsodizing about mathematics, still can’t make all their theories play well with each other without imaginative gymnastics.

Mathematical models are by far the most universal and fruitful of these, but are they real, in the sense that the universe works that way a priori?  Not according to Raymond Tallis:

The mathematics of light does not get anywhere near the experience of yellow, nor does the mathematical description of patterns of nerve impulses reach pain itself. This is sometimes seen as evidence that neither the colour nor the pain are really real – although it might be difficult to sell this claim to the man looking at a daffodil or a woman with toothache.

I have no quibble with the idea that models, mathematical or otherwise, are indispensable for our understanding of the real world, but physicists have been insisting that they are the real world.  They cite Occam’s Razor, the axiom that the simplest explanation is always not only the most likely to be true, but is actually true.

Ironically, William of Occam, the late medieval monk for whom this principle is named, did not believe in the existence of universal laws of nature.  Humans, he thought, had made them all up for convenience.

Go figure.