Divide the world, the Stoics teach, into those things which are beyond control, and those things which are within control. Then, focus on what is within control. This is how we get free. Of course, this very move presupposes choice.
This leads me to the thought: if there were no free will, why then is there consciousness at all? Why doesn’t the whole set of processes which constitute our being go on in the dark, like digestion, or the pacing of the heart?
No, I take it that there is some measure of free will. Granted, I could be wrong on this. But it is a practical assumption, worth making.
I also take it that what constitutes our conscious life comes late in the process, late in the causal chain, and that the bulk of our being isn’t subject to control. We have little choice in deciding whether or not we’ll grow hungry, or tired. But we can, with proper understanding, regulate these processes. We can, for example, postpone when we will take supper, or advance the time our morning alarm will ring. And this being done — in harmony with with the processes which govern nature and the demands of culture — we can set a pattern of being for ourselves, autonomously, with freedom.
Now it will be objected, doubtlessly, that the ocean of values and variables in which we swim is really what determines our choices. We can’t choose our preferences, and it’s these preferences — deeply submerged in nature and culture — which govern the currents of our choices. But I contend, extending the metaphor, that though we are as a ship on this sea of nature, our ship is captained with greater or lesser skill. And skill founds itself on what must be, on necessity. It is a subtle art. It entails noticing, feeling, anticipating, and remaining open as the horizon.
I suppose many set out to sail this sea of life uncaptained, and float about with a false sense of control. Yet, among these are those who — already well along in the journey — figure how to follow the currents in their corner of the wide world well enough to make the journey their own. Others either get through on chance, or sink — with all their cargo aboard.
But we do know much about the ocean, though much remains mysterious and unfathomably deep. Then, knowing how little we do know, we navigate, curious, awake and aware, prepared always to tack a new course when we have learned.
Perhaps it is the case that did we know all and absolutely, free will would be superfluous, awareness would be superfluous. Awareness is an adaptation to the unknown. Awareness’s raison d’être is the unknown. Awareness looks on the horizon, informed with possibility, making its best inferences, never certain, knowing that yesterday, at its clearest utterance, rhymes with today, but not with tomorrow.
Not knowing makes deliberation valuable. We compare possibilities, with awareness, and predict with limited prescience, and get, with better or worse skill, to a better or worse world.
No one can tell us what that world must be. Our best friends, knowing us for fellow travelers, as we will with them, share stories, maps, and weather reports.
“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” — Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird
Show me a racist, and I’ll show you a fool. We now have evidence — strong scientific evidence — linking racism to stupidity. Scientists have linked racism with low intelligence in what is called a meta-analysis. That is, they have done a study of studies. Doing meta-analyses allows scientists to see wide patterns — kind of like looking at a forest instead of the trees.
Controlling for factors like education and economic status, scientists have found that lower intelligence in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood (Busseri). In one specific study, scientists examined how well young children could notice, when water was poured from a short-fat glass into a tall-skinny glass, that the amount of water remains the same. Children usually develop this ability — called conservation — by age seven. In the study, white children of the target age who had more difficulty noticing that the amount of water stayed the same were more likely to hold negative views of black children (Herbert).
Thinking in the abstract takes intelligence. Thinking in the abstract entails the ability to recognize that things which appear to be different may in reality be the same. For example, it is because we can think abstractly that we can recognize that snow, water, and steam, despite appearances, are all the same substance. H2O is the abstraction of water.
Things which appear on the surface to be different may in reality be identical. Four quarters make a dollar; and a short-fat glass can be the equivalent of a tall-skinny glass. Reality and appearance are not the same, which confuses our more dim-witted fellows. On the surface, people appear different. Some are dark, and some are light. So they must be different, right? After all, we have a word for these differences: race.
Let’s dismantle the word race, and expose it for the fraud it is. And let us begin this dismantling by examining the whale, which, on first glance, appears to be a fish. We once called whales fish, despite several anomalies. Here are two key anomalies which led scientists to say that’s strange. First, whales birth their young live. Second, they have horizontal tails. Fish lay eggs and have vertical tails.
Focusing on these anomalies, scientists discovered that whales and dolphins and porpoises have more in common with people than with fish, despite appearances. We find evidence for this in their spines. Whale spines, like our spines, bend forward and backward. Fish spines, unlike our spines, bend side to side. Whales once walked on land, and were wolf-like creatures. Notice in this image of the early whale called dorudon that it had hind legs — for walking (“The Evolution of Whales”).
Things which appear to be the same may be in reality quite different; things which appear quite different may in reality be quite similar. And things which appear to be different may in the abstract be the same. Whales and dolphins are not fish; they are mammals, like us.
People appear to be different; and so we use the word race as if there are in reality different species of humans. There are not. Scout is right. “[T]here’s just one kind of folks. Folks” (Harper, 304).
Closer inspection proves that the word race points to a mere shadow, not to a reality. Like the people in Plato’s Cave of Ignorance, racists take pride in how they name shadows. Often, they name shadows with dehumanizing words — like the N-word. So let us cut to the chase. There is only one species of human: homo sapiens.
Understanding what a species is entails an understanding of sex. Species are distinguished from one another along reproductive lines. To have a baby requires that a sperm and an egg would successfully combine to create an individual, who could, on average, reproduce. That is, the DNA of the father and mother must be of a common kind. A hippo and a housecat cannot breed. The hippo is therefore a different species from a housecat.
Yet there are species who are nearly the same species, such as the lion and the tiger. Only about 5 million years ago, lions and tigers were the same species. Then two groups of this species got isolated and did not interbreed. Slowly, they became lions and tigers. But five million years is short in evolutionary terms; so the DNA of lions and tigers only slightly differs. With some difficulty can interbreed lions and tigers, and get the biggest cat in the world: the liger. What we cannot do is get a second generation. So lions and tigers are as near as two species can be to one another while yet remaining different species.
Humans from any part of the world can easily have children with humans from any other part of the world; and those children can easily grow up and easily have children with humans from any part of the world. Humans are not genetically diverse. Our genetic family ties are tight.
Humans have had little time to genetically drift from one another. Roughly 70,000 years ago, humans almost went extinct. We lost most of our genetic diversity. All people can trace their family tree to a population in Africa between of fewer than 10,000 individuals (“Humans”). We are all Africans.
Whereas lions and tigers have had five million years to drift apart, we have only had 70,000 years — an evolutionary eye-blink. That’s the difference between a seventy-one yard rush and a one-yard rush. Inside of a yard, a fullback can only do so many spins, tucks and turns.
In order to become separate species, we would have to remain isolated from one another for millions and millions and millions of years. I prefer to travel. And having travelled much, I have seen many of my friends fall in love with people from other cultures. I have seen whites marry blacks, blacks marry asians, and asians marry whites. In every case, the result was the same: kids.
Though people appear quite different, we are very much the same. There is no single gene that distinguishes, say, Japanese from French (Roach). And having two beautiful children of my own from an intercultural marriage, I can attest that only ideas separate people.
Not all ideas are equal. Some ideas are plain stupid. Stupid ideas cannot stand once we know the facts — unless we choose to ignore the facts. But what intelligent person would choose to be ignorant? What intelligent person would prefer to remain in The Cave of Ignorance? None but a caveman.
Here is why this all matters: we are a nation of laws. Not many would argue that cows should get equal protection under the law — this is because cows are a different species. We are equal before the law because we are equally human. This is the great idea which makes America exceptional: we are all created equal. The evidence is in our DNA.
Yet in the United States, we have a history of treating people who look different as less than human. As we read To Kill a Mockingbird, keep this in mind: we are equal before the law because we are equal in our humanity. Atticus Finch will prove to be a fine man who recognizes the humanity in others, and practices law according to this deep principal.
To understand the superficial differences between people, consider the following. As our ancestors migrated out of Africa, they adapted to different environments. Being human, they used the UV-B rays in sunlight to create vitamin D in their skin. We all need vitamin D. So, as they travelled north, where there is less UV-B radiation, their skin lightened. That way, they were able to get the more UV-B rays to synthesize the vitamin D they needed. It is a tradeoff: less UV protection for more vitamin D.
This adaptation in no way made them more or less human. We’ve been fully human for about 200,000 years (Avasthi).
Humans who migrated farther north got less UV light, and so grew more lightly pigmented — whiter. That’s it. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.
Avasthi, Amitabh. “After Near Extinction, Humans Split Into Isolated Bands.” National Geographic.
National Geographic Society, 24 Apr. 2008. Web. 21 Feb. 2015
Busseri, Michael A., and Gordon Hodson. “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes Lower Cognitive
Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup
Contact.” Psychological Science. Association for Psychological Science, 25 July 2011.
Web. 22 Feb. 2015.
“The Evolution of Whales.” The Evolution of Whales. Berekely, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central, 1982. Print.
Herbert, Wray. “Is Racism Just a Form of Stupidity?” Association for Psychological Science
RSS. Association for Psychological Science, 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.
“Humans Change the World.” Humans Change the World. Smithsonian Institute, 02 Feb.
- Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
Roach, John. “Massive Genetic Study Supports “Out of Africa” Theory.” N.p., 21 Feb. 2008. Web.
than even a circus
elephant very tall-
er than would a tree pine;
farthermore reaching than
a snaking-river’s strike,
God’s tarantuala hands
are climbing up and up
and up the string holding
most: Earth is a balloon
In the Morning
Tucks an apple
In my bag and
Plucks a kiss
From my cheek;
Leaves fall and
Its The Fall
And I leave
school’s out and
an open mind
is an empty
the chain link fence,
lands and kicks
an open base-
in his pockets,
his hope and his shoes
walk home, joey.
it must be
getting dark soon and you are Sun-
burned and dusty.
(in the X
-ant climbing the mountain
That I Am
We have little problem when a Dostoyevski brings us up a set of stairs to bury an ax in an old woman’s head. But when Nabokov brings us on a little tour of the United States and has Humbert Humbert bury himself in his insane fantasy of a twelve year old nymphet, we are quick to call Nabokov an immoral pervert who encourages pedophilia. Indeed, when vandals attacked the St.Petersburg museum dedicated to Nobokov, they left a note which read, “How can you remain unafraid of God’s wrath promoting Nabokov’s pedophilia?”
Yet even literate readers level a similar charge against Nabokov.
Just this week, I debated a scientifically-minded philosopher on the topic. He told me that Nabokov is a horrible man for penning such immoral smut. He told me that such a book does not belong on any shelf a teenager might peruse. He admitted that he had not read the book.
Having got his confession, I told him that when my one year old daughter is literate and mature enough, I want her to read the book — the sooner the better. I want her to be wise to the Humbert Humberts of the world.
We should be thankful that we have such a beautiful, moral book as Lolita. We should be thankful we have this first-person account so that we may explore perversion sublimated par excellence. I for one am thankful for having been made wiser to the world for having read this first person account of a cruel, mad mind, driven to divine idolatry.
Countering, my philosopher friend gave an account of a scientific book which gives us to understand how rape is an unsavory impulse embedded in our genetic pattern, and that understanding this scientific account can help us to understand why we should not throw gasoline on that little red coal which burns in the darker corners of the human genome, of hotels, and of Hollywood.
And yet he did not think his scientific book an immoral book. Yet he, like so many, considers Lolita smut, perverse and pornographic.
I pressed him to distinguish why Nabokov’s account of a child rapist is a sick and immoral account, while the scientific account is not.
I asked him if it had to do with presentation, if it had to do with our relation to pronouns, if it had to do with the fact that a scientific account is not given in the first person, but is rather given in the third person or in the passive voice, in which the personal pronoun is neatly and happily hidden, like so many in our culture.
(According to Humbert Humbert, some seventeen percent of men have enjoyed a nymphet — yet Humbert Humbert is not a scientist. He is an unreliable narrator, and Lolita is unreliably narrated.)
My philosopher friend considered, and we have yet to conclude this conversation. Nonetheless, this lively debate led me to think about what we fancy Literature to be, and what we imagine Literature to give us. Scientific Literature, the prejudice goes, gives us knowledge — impersonal, sane and sanitary. Literature Literature, on the other hand, can give us a Humbert Humbert — but not knowledge.
Literature Literature alone can present for us the first person account, alone can present us with precision an individual, and alone can widen our understanding, knowledge, and humanity as the third person or passive voice cannot. Literature Literature can show us with precision what the scientific imagination alone cannot.
“A writer should have the precision of a poet, and the imagination of a scientist.” —Nabokov