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Seeing the Big Picture

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Joined: 06 Apr 2010
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PostPosted: Sun Apr 11, 2010 11:29 pm    Post subject: Seeing the Big Picture Reply with quote

Years ago I read John Patric's Yankee Hobo in the Orient wherein he describes walking through Japan and traveling through China and Korea in the late 30's. It was printed after Pearl Harbor, and so Patric had to take care in his narration. But even so, he pretty much called things the way he saw them, and he was an extraordinary observer.

However, the part of the book which has peculiar application to the subject of this post was in the Foreward. I read it as a young man, but the older I get, the more I sympathize with it. So I will transcribe it, before I get to the point.

When I was a little boy, I loved books--if they had pictures and told a story--quite as much as the lad you will find on the Great Wall of China, by the tree-that-would-never-grow-up.

When I was still a boy, though no longer little, I read a story about once upon a time when Kings were good, and Governments wise and just. The King was Dabshelim, and at first he was no older than I when I heard the tale.

Dabshelim had more than a kingdom. He had also the most complete and compreshensive library of his time. Into his thousands and thousands of books there had been gathered and stored, so he thought, all the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the ages that had gone before.

But which of them should he read?

He knew, as we know, that wisdom must be in books; for if it is not there, then where is it? And yet he knew not which books to choose.

He knew that he had a library so big that if he and all his Cabinet began reading immediately, and if they read every day from dawn until dark, and did nothing else whatever, they would all be old men before they had finished--old men who could use no longer what they had read.

But even so, the problem of this ancient King was less than ours. For his books were only a few thousand bulky volumes. Each had been copied so laboriously by hand that only the best had been worth it. It was not then as it is today, when scores of thousands of men at their unbelievably fast typesetting machines, are producing so many new pages that the once-startling metaphor, "mountains of paper and rivers of ink," has become the tritest of understatement.

There are men now living who have written fifty books apiece. Ten thousand new titiles roll off the presses each year. There are great libraries with more than a million different volumes. Old books are less read than ever before. "New books" are in terrific demand at prices much too hiogh; tomorrow they are cheap reprints; day after tomorrow they are dead. Publishers plan it that way. It keeps book factories going at top speed day and night.

King Dabshelim, in that distant yesterday, summoned a wise man. The name of the wise man was Pilpay, but it is often written Bidpai, and I like it better so. Bidpai was the wisest of them all.

"Make an abridgement, a condensation of my library, selecting only that which is important for me to know. Draw what is needful from the Public Treasury."

Bidpai summond the greaest scholars and professors in all that kingdom. Together in a great new building they worked for ten years. They so reduced the books that it took only one hundred camels to carry them.

But this, said the King, was far too much.

Bidpai began again, doing more of the work himself. In another decade the library could be hauled on twenty camels.

Again, said the busy King, the books were too many.

Bidpai resumed his task. After ten years more there was a load for only five camels. By then the King was afflicted with civil strife and danger to his realm. His time for reading was less than ever it had been.

Bidpai set to work again, alone, studying every sentence, every phrase, and every word, to be certain that what he kept was essential to the wisdom of his King. Yet everything he was discarding now was something he had once considered needful.

At last, the task seemed finished. Once again the wise man, stooped and white of beard, was admitted to the Palace of his King.

Without the walls there stood a camel. Only one; the king could see it silhouetted against the sky. That camel was not heavy laden.

King Dabshelim shook his head.

"Once," said he, "I could have read these books. That was long ago. I'm old Bidpai--old before my time, The intrigues of State weigh heavily upon me. I cannot read even this much now."

Audience ended, Bidpai walked sadly away.

But he turned, and once more addressed his King.

"For forty years, sire, have I worked with your books, trying to keep only that which a King should know. Perhaps I have made a discovery. I believe I could tell you everything that your original library contained, if you will permit me to try, in one minute."

"That, I can spare."

"Well, sire, your books on Religion, Phiosophy, Morals, and Ethics--all they say is this:

"'Love nothing but that which is good; and then do everything thou lovest to do. Think only that which is true; but speak not all that thou thinkest.'

"But the rest? The books on Jurisprudence, Planned Econoics, Military Strategy, Sociology, and Political Science? How about the tales of that hobo, returned from far Cathay? What is the wisdom you have found in them?"

"All they say, sire, can be told in a word."

"And that word, Bidpai?"

"'Perhaps,' sire."

Had I fully believed the implications of that story, I should never have written a book at all. But had I not heard the story, I should have written another book--maybe two more--in the time I have taken to revise, redesign, and republish this one.

Here is why I think that "Perhaps" may never be overcome.

Everything we know of a scientific nature--that is, of a nature which we can communicate to our contemporaries and expect them to take seriously--depends at last analysis on at least one of our five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

Now why do we have those senses? I submit that the main reason we have those, and not others, is that it is those senses which enabled our ancestors to survive and thrive. They permitted our ancestors to be aware of those things which could harm them, as well as those things which could make for their survival and permit them to thrive. Without those five senses, we would not be here.

So those senses gave our ancestors awareness of those phenomena which affected their weal or woe. Other phenomena was apprehended, but by coincidence.

It seems quite likely that the fraction of phenomena which affect humankind is quite a small part of the whole. There seems no objective reason to believe we humans occupy a central place in the universe.

Consequently it also seems quite likely that there is an enormous body of phenomena that is not directly accessible through our senses, and a certain amount not even accessible indirectly.

Now it is not inconceivable that some of these inaccessible phenomena do interact with and influence things we can and do commonly observe. In fact, it seems quite likely.

And that being the case, there will at times occur inexplicible anomalies. Furthermore, it will be impossible for humankind to create unified theories in which all observable phenomena will fit.

Of couse that does not prevent us from trying to explain all we can. But we cannot reasonably expect anything but incremental and partial progress.
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