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Sunday, May 11, 2003

I pick up a pebble

If I pick up a pebble and look at it, I see one thing. If I pick up another pebble, and look at it, I see one thing. If there were no me, these things would lie there, until moved by wind or water, or diminished by these, and the action of sunshine, until they became sand. They are not appreciable as two things of the same kind unless observed by an entity capable of categorizing.

Plants, and relatively simple animals such as hydras, do seem to be capable of categorizing, though we don't tend to think of this as an intellectual activity.

Plants, and animals lacking a central nervous system, categorize by means of immanent statistics.

Some survive, some don't, and those that survive may pass on their genes, with the result that the continued existence of those genes is in itself a record, passively, of there being sets of circumstances favorable to such passing on.

It's not that the fittest survive. It's that those whose circumstances did not finish them off survive. You may not be the fittest, but if you're still here, well, cool.

But a common denominator for a lot of survivors is the utilization, whether accidentally or purposively, of something like set theory: the successful organism found or avoided like things, such as a certain species of predator or annual temperature range.

The next stage beyond passive information gathering is active information gathering. A trout can experiment with sensory data; the object fluttering on the surface of the water, refracting light as it goes, may be a protein-rich insect. If, however, the object, in a number of instances, proves to be a small wad of chicken neck feathers wrapped on a sharp-tipped bit of wire with thread and glue, the trout, if it successfully shakes these off, may in time come to be an old and wise trout.

So, as I am a creature with active information-gathering systems, and the ability to compare, I look at the pebbles and see them as two pebbles.

I categorize.

I note differences, which is what senses are for, and if the differences are sufficiently minor I take the intellectual leap of concluding that for my purposes the pebbles are "the same."

I can gather like pebbles, bore holes in them, and string them on rawhide to make a necklace. I can draw a face in the sand, put the pebbles in the face on either side, and mean them to be taken, by another observer, as a representation of eyes. I can count them: "one, two." These are immensely complex activities, not easily described in all their implications.

Without this capability to recognize, no complex animal would live long enough to pass on its genes. There would be no language, no speech, no writing, no art, no political process, and none of what we call spirituality.

And yet, at its, root, recognition embodies a bit of a falsehood.

This pebble, after all, isn't that pebble.

"There are no generals," asserted William Blake in the margins of a copy of Reynold's's book: "ONLY particulars!" The leap of metaphor is a momentary fiction, which is the fiction that makes possible for us all the discovery of what we call truth.

As I sit for a moment, watching the mists (which I "recognize" as mists) clearing away in the light of a rare sunrise from Jasper Mountain, I wonder where all this leads. Many conclusions are possible. One of them is that I could probably stand to be a little more tolerant of the fictions others live by, having so thoroughly rummaged through my own myths, and discovered their so tenuous hold on verifiability.

People in general are worthy of, I think, a good deal more respect than they usually get.


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