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Saturday, January 15, 2005

Lying, and tigers and baboons, oh my

When I was 9 the girl down the street (Alicia Somethingorother) told me I was like Spock from Star Trek and people should call me Spock. Then, when I was at University my friend Jeff pulled me up several times for calling it Star Track (in an exasperated tone: "it's Star Trek, not Star Track") Fair enough. More recently somebody accused me of armchair epistemology. So, true to form, the following came out of my typewriter today. It's a follow-on to a conversation I had recently in which I took the position that conflict is normal, to be expected, and respected for what it provides - diversity (an essential by-product of freedom) :

"tactical deception" is lying or cheating. People do it. Baboons do it too. I don't thing dogs or cats do it (but I could be wrong). The behavior consists of the ability to deceive in order to achieve a desired end. Some scientists use "tactical deception" as a measure of intelligence. My argument is that tactical deception is inherent in (mortal) intelligence. The knock-on effect is (intelligence derived) conflict. There are other types of deception, intelligence, and conflict - but humans, when they are at their best, will suffer conflict as a result of intelligence. (and when at their worst, suffer conflict because of stupidity).

At the crux of the argument is mortality. As the saying goes, "death and taxes are the only things we can be sure of". Conflict resides within uncertainty. Death (and sometimes a great deal of it) can have the effect of creating a measure of certainty (e.g. the extreme example; when there were no more Moriori (sp?) the Maori become lord and master of New Zealand. When the Maori were faced with overwhelming force they were able to conceptualize defeat, but suffered initial losses. Overwhelming force provided both sides with certainty AND provided for the peace we see in New Zealand today. Where the Maori culture found it necessary to hunt down (and eat bits of?) every last Moriori, western culture only found it necessary to break the the Maori's will to fight.) As long as death is the only thing we can be certain of, it will play a part in conflict resolution. We only have some say in how much of a part.

I have a much more involved and less grounded argument that conflict is an essential purpose of human kind; that we need to admit the value of conflict in discovery; that the tumult we find ourselves in is the only place that we can persist AND is the best way of doing things (which isn't a conscious decision - it's how things work - at the edge of chaos); and that diversity in opinion is keeping at bay a much more sinister force - cooperation. Stuart Kauffman's "At Home in the Universe" brings several examples of the value of being "at the edge of chaos" to the fore and grinds home why this should make us optimistic.(btw, Steven Strogatz's "Sync" mates up very well with "At Home in the Universe" - sync is a mechanism nature uses to keep things -at the edge- of chaos, preventing them from going over the edge. I highly recommend it - even though I'm not through it yet.)

A problem lies in our interface with the realm of the ideal (or idea). Ideals and ideas are immortal. They don't suffer the constraints of individual people (e.g. immortal conflict is a very different beast to mortal conflict). Striving for an ideal world isn't always the same as striving for an achievable world. There should be an intersection between the sets of achievable and ideal worlds. That's what we should aim for. In order to do that, we need to bound the set of achievable, then determine what is ideal within that set. To strive for an unachievable ideal world is likely to have negative effects (e.g. Taliban, 3rd Reich, Khmer Rouge, N.Korea, etc. - also note the theme of homogeneity within those 4 examples ). My concern is that until we embrace (attempt) an accurate view of our condition we have little chance of understanding what is achievable. Without that understanding we'll continue to flail around, prostrate ourselves to graven images, and/or create totalitarian regimes of lock-step conformity.

Eye of the Tiger - Survivor:

So many times, it happened too fast

You trade your passion for glory

Don't lose your grip on the dreams of the past

You must fight just to keep them alive

It's the eye of the tiger

It's the thrill of the fight

Risin' up to the challenge of our rival

And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night

And his fortune must always be

Eye of the tiger...

The Tiger - William Blake (1757–1827)

TIGER, tiger, burning bright In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies 5

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art

Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 10

And, when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? What the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil?

What dread grasp 15

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,

And water’d heaven with their tears,

Did He smile His work to see?

Did He who made the lamb make thee? 20

Tiger, tiger, burning bright In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

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