Consider the Elephant

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My twin brother is studying to be a scientist. What sort of scientist, I can't quite tell you. All I know is that it has to do with very teeny-tiny things, and he's extremely concerned with how to fold proteins.

I am not a scientific person. I did not even know that proteins could fold, or that there were certain ways they folded, or that all that molecular origami had life-saving implications. That is the kind of not-scientific person I am. My brother, when he comes home, occasionally attempts to explain scientific principles to me. One disastrous winter break, he was trying to explain the work of his friend the theoretical physicist, which led to an argument on Schrodinger's Cat that lasted the entire month he was home.

This partially has to do with the fact that my brother is exactly as gifted at verbal communication and story-telling as I am at science - that is to say, he isn't - and spent the initial explanation undecided if in this scenario the cat was administered a drug that left it dead or sleeping, depending on how humane he was feeling at that moment.  Finally, though, after much confused Wikipedia-ing and prolonged explanations, I looked him square in the eye and said, "That is the stupidest fucking thing I have ever heard."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"A cat can't be halfway dead," I said. "Either it's dead or alive. You're telling me that scientifically, the cat is considered 50% dead simply by virtue of not knowing if it's alive or not. But let's say the cat's dead, right, and then you look, and you see it's dead. It was still 100% dead two seconds ago, it didn't become 50% less dead just because you now know it's dead. Are you honestly telling me that there is an enduring scientific theory based upon a human inability to simply check on the mortality of a cat?"

"The cat's a metaphor," he said, "see, if the cat were an electron, this wouldn't be dumb."

"But it's not an electron, it's a cat," I protested. "Seriously, am I the first person who realized how stupid this is? It's a cat."

"But," my brother said with the air of someone who has irrefutable logic on their side to win an argument, "it doesn't matter, because it's true."

"I just told you it wasn't true!" I said. "Do I have to go through the dead cat thing again? It is a terrible, terrible metaphor that kills cats!"

"No," my brother corrected me, "it's science."

- - - - -

When I was about 10, I had an epiphany.  I realized that there was a high likelihood that everything I thought I knew was entirely wrong.

It wasn't one of those hit-you-over-the-head epiphanies, but more of a dawning realization that came from making friends with actual human beings instead of my previous primary form of social interaction, which existed entirely in my own head with characters from books I'd read. Real people, I learned rather quickly, were terribly, horribly complicated. They didn't have one central narration that was the sole purpose of their existence. They didn't narrate their thoughts wittily and articulately. Real people were confusing, easily distracted, and didn't appreciate exposition the way book characters did. I was very lucky that the people I made friends with were both avid readers themselves, and extremely comfortable pointing out all the times my assumptions were wrong. Which was quite often.

The realization that I was not the omniscient narrator of my own life was a rather confusing one for me. I was the kind of child who was used to being more clever than everyone else, and I was (and still am) very, very stubborn. The realization of my own inherent fallacy would have destroyed my self-esteem utterly if I did not come to a second epiphany simultaneously; yes, I was wrong most of the time, but so was everyone else. And, considering how rampant human fallacy is, I'm surprised more people don't seem to have come to the conclusion that there is nothing sacred in the universe besides the extremely high chance of error. Accepting that doesn't mean you should stop doing things because you're wrong or might make a mistake - a lot of the very best discoveries are made by accident. It should, instead, make you feel freer to be wrong.

That's the thing about the scientific method, not to mention science in general. It has its place, it does. But it doesn't get along well with two inevitabilities in life, namely: mistakes and happenstance. The scientific method assumes that for something to have happened, it has to be repeatable, and if you repeat something a hundred times with the same result, you can repeat it a hundred million times with the same result. Science is based on a cumulative mound of assumptions made because we, as human beings, are not omnipotent. We cannot predict every variable or foresee every outcome. And if we could, we wouldn't need science.

When I bring this up with my brother, he points out that clearly, this is a method that's worked, because look at all the things science does and has made possible. And to that extent, I agree. I don't mean to disparage science and technology. I think it absolutely has its place. But I would like to put a big old asterisk next to it with a label that says WARNING: CONTAINS HUMAN FALLIBILITY.

To a scientist like my brother, to admit to that would be a failure. To him, and people like him, science is sacred. The earth revolves around the sun. 1 + 1 = 2. Force is equal to mass times acceleration. We build on these things because they are right, and true, and good, and to deny them would be wrong. To think outside those confines would be wrong. To admit that there is any margin for error would cause the scientific world to be crippled with self-doubt, so instead it is explained using math. "This is all true," my brother likes to say when explaining obscure and ridiculous concepts, "because math says so."

Here's what else math tells you - math tells you we shouldn't be here. Math tells you that the statistical likelihood of us as humans evolving from pond scum was about as likely as rolling an unweighted die over and over and over again and getting a three every time. Sometimes, that sort of thing fails. Sometimes, science doesn't fit in a neat little box. Sometimes your computer crashes for no reason that anyone can figure out. Sometimes the world is just too damn giant and complicated and crazy and beautiful to fit into numbers and test tubes and what's Right and what's Wrong.

And me? I'm okay with that.

- - - - -

For the purposes of this next section you need to know the following things about my best friend; she is a philosophy major, she is an atheist, and her favorite activity in the world is having long, drawn-out shouting arguments over minutiae of impossibly large concepts, only to find we've never really disagreed in the first place, which I could have told you two hours before we had the gigantic argument. And yet we get into it anyway, because our friendship is based upon a mutual acceptance of each other's less desireable quirks. In her case - needing to make everything into a full-blown litigation.

One day, I don't remember what we were discussing - I think something about teaching creationism in school - and I mentioned, casually, that I believe in God. Not in a religious sense, I clarified. I consider myself Jewish, but strictly on a cultural basis. I celebrate all the holidays, but I don't go to temple and see no need to. Religiously speaking, I don't quite consider myself anything, nor do I feel the need to practice any sort of worship. As far as I'm concerned, there's simply a higher power that exists, holding the universe together like the very strongest of duct tape.

My best friend found this concept very bewildering and concerning. "But that's not something that's quantifiable or provable," she said, "therefore, the lack of proof means there's no God."

"That's not how I see God," I explained. "God isn't a thing. God isn't like gravity. God is the ineffable thing. The inexplicable thing. God is the answer to every string of 'why' questions. God is the glue."

"But how do you know that's true?" she asked.

That's the thing questions of faith always boil down to - how do you know if something is true or not? As a student of philosophy, this is of paramount importance to the bestie. I'm not quite sure of all the rules of philosophical argument, as they in no way follow the rules of common sense or logic. They require an extraordinary precise use of English that, if you actually talked like that, would make people think you had brain damage. There are vast debates over the various definitions and uses of the word "is", and which one was used in which classical proposition. Somehow, in this labyrinth of mangled language and logic with which you can seemingly prove anything, even things that are patently untrue, one cannot prove that God exists. And so, she wanted proof.

I say, consider the following again - at one point on the evolutionary chain, we came from pond scum. At some point, due to random chance, that pond scum evolved a little mutation. And procreated, passing that mutation on. And that mutated pond scum improbably mutated again, and so on and so forth. Consider how obscenely unlikely it is that the DNA for that pond scum mutated in the first place, and then look at what we are, as human beings. Think of how short a time it took for us (cosmically speaking) to get from pond scum to the fabulously complicated creatures we are, sitting around discussing this. How can there not be some higher power overseeing that? How else did we all get so lucky?

Every day, there are millions and billions of ways in which the universe could explode, or humanity could end, or you could just drop dead walking down the street. In fact, all things considered, it's fairly amazing we don't. There is logically no reason why we haven't all fallen victim to a pandemic or had a giant meteor obliterate us by now. And yet, here we are. And somehow, in the grand scheme of things, everything seems to work out. We as a species, stumble very slowly down the path to good. I can't think of a better reason for believing in a higher power than that. Sure, you might not want to pray to the God of Stacking the Deck In Favor of Humanity, but I'm sure thankful for him/her/it.

This, to my best friend, doesn't constitute proof. My logic, she says, is based on the absence of something happening. There are a million scentific reasons why things either happen or don't, and maybe it comes down to dumb luck. That doesn't make God real. That doesn't make God a cosmic truth.

To me, it's all a question of faith. It's a question of taking the leap and believing in something you can't see. It's accepting that as a human, there are things too vast and beautiful for us to understand, and instead of trying to yell at it and argue about it and break it down into tiny boxes, to embrace it. Life is uncertain. What's true is uncertain. Two people can see the same concrete action happen and yet both walk away convinced of two totally different sets of facts. What's the truth then? It is easier to accept that there is none; there is only what you believe. It's easier to accept that there's no cosmic answer and there needn't be. Otherwise figuring out the universe is just one giant headache-inducing existential crisis after another. Me, I have faith. That's the right answer for me. For her it might not be. Maybe one of us is right and the other is wrong. Maybe we're both right. Maybe we're both wrong. Does it really matter if we'll never know?

"Yes," said my best friend when I was done explaining this. "But God - it's not true. I mean, there's still no proof."

I was forced to conclude that she had missed my point entirely.

- - - - -

You've probably heard my favorite story in the world. It goes a little something like this:

Once upon a time, a group of blind men came across an elephant blocking the road. "What is it?" they asked each other. "What's blocking the road?"

"It's a pillar," said one of the blind men, feeling the elephant's leg.

"No," said another, feeling the elephant's side, "it's a wall."

"You're both wrong," said a third, trying to grab hold of the elephant's trunk, "it's a snake."

Another man felt the tail and thought it was a rope. One felt the tusks and thought they were spears. The last felt the ears and thought they were giant fans.

Different people will say this story is about different things. It could be about right and wrong - all these men were wrong, after all, because none of them looked at the big picture, and yet, in a way, all of them were right. It could be about universal truth, or God. Some might say we are all blind men, all grabbing at different sections of a picture too large for us to ever hope to comprehend. Or, quite simplistically, it's a story about six blind men who run across an elephant.

But to me, it is a story about stories.

- - - - -

One of the first things any child learns about creating is that it never turns out the way you intended. It doesn't matter what you're creating - it could be a story, or a clay pot, or a pot of soup. But it never, ever, ever turns out exactly how you pictured it. And that's the kind of excitement and frustration that either makes someone love to create or hate it. Either you deal well with uncertainty, or you don't.

As a writer, I won't say something horribly pretentious like "I don't write stories, they write me". If I ever, ever say something that patently ridiculous, I'd like someone to slap me extremely hard. I will say that stories are a lot like children. You start off with a good idea of what they are based on what they act like as babies, and then they grow and get unrulier and stranger and more out of your control, until eventually you have this full-grown thing. Sure, it bears some resemblance to what you set out with, and yes, you had  good hand in saying what the final product was, but it's also rather humbling to see how little control you had at all. And it doesn't matter how much you meditate upon and outline whatever it is you're writing - it'll change on you and grow in ways you've never imagined. It's just what the process of creation does to a thing. And again, it's something you either enjoy, or you don't. I happen to enjoy it immensely. And what's more, I'm kinda good at it. It's why I do what I do, which is try and create stories to the best of my ability. It's one of those jobs that, unless you're really, really good or successful at it, it's not considered to be glamorous, or in any way important. It's certainly not as important as my best friend, who wants to be a lawyer and argue about Truth for a living, or my brother, who wants to devote his life to science and Right and Wrong and making the world a better, healthier place for people to live in and have their proteins folded.

I think what they want to do with their lives are exceedingly important things, and noble things, and great things to do. But when I think about them, I think about the elephant. And I think, they each have a firm grasp on part of it, but for how long? Philosophies change. Our idea of what is true and moral and good changes. And even faster than that, science and our idea of what is right and what is wrong changes. Think of it as the human grip on the elephant shifting.

One thing that never changes, though, are stories. Stories last forever. In fact, in this grand, confusing, roiling world of ours, stories are the only things that seem to last forever. It doesn't matter that they're not true, or that things that require massive leaps of logic or faith happen in them - we take those leaps instinctively. For a short time, we let go of our human need to know and be right about everything and we just let something happen to us. We trust stories. We love stories. And I think the reason why they do that is the very simple, inherent reason that they never claim to be Right or Truthful or Good. After all, who cares? It's just a story. They mean nothing more than what you want them to mean. They might touch upon giant, unknowable truths and unquantifiable things, but they never claim to be the final word. The final word is up to you. Whether you believe in the story you just read or not is up to you. And for that reason, the right story at the right time can be the most profound thing you've ever read, and then ten years later you can read it again and wonder what in the hell you were thinking. Sometimes you re-discover a story you thought you hated and you actually end up loving it. Some stories tell you things that stick with you your entire life.

In the elephant story, the entire point is that everyone who is up close grabbing a tiny bit and micro-analyzing it is completely unable to see the enormity of what is in front of them. If only, you think, there was a seventh blind man, an impartial one, who sat there and tried to cobble everything together. And in his explanation, he'd tell each person what they needed to hear - it was a rope/a fan/a pillar - but he'd also tell them something new that they'd never thought of. The blind man would still be blind, and more likely than not, he'd be wrong. He might never guess it was an elephant. He'd come up with a lot of bad explanations before he came up with enough good ones to satisfy everyone there. But the point is, he'd try, and maybe it would take multiple tries, but eventually, everyone would be happy.

The job of anyone who creates is to be the seventh man. The job of a creator is to let go of the elephant and try to put the whole thing together as best as they can, regardless of how many times they step in elephant dung while pacing and thinking up an explanation. The job of the writer is to let go of needing certainty and facts and proof and simply letting their humanity speak for itself, and it is the job of the writer to believe that will be enough. It's scary and hard and thrilling and wonderful. Sometimes it smells a little. It almost never pays well.

But it's good. And it's worth it. And if nobody did it, who knows how long we'd all be standing around, copping a feel off a poor, put-upon elephant.

Created: Jan 30, 2011

Tags: creativity, essays

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