The Human Condition:

Shades of Gray – January 26, 2013


The world is a complicated place. The human mind is a complicated device, and concepts like the self and consciousness are perhaps born out of the sheer complexity of neural networks. The universe is a place of staggering complexity and disorder, from the quantum level of swarming particles that can either be detected or followed but not both at once, to the cosmic level of swirling galaxies of stars, dust and gas that can be observed at a glance but not reliably counted.

Yet if the human mind has one consistent impulse, it is to reduce complexity and confusion to simple rules, categories, algorithms, and equations. The nature of mind and its teachings is to itch and seethe when confronted with shades of gray and push each instance toward the dark or the light, toward black or white, toward the aggregations of the “lumpers” or the categorizations of the “splitters,” and declare a singular kind of truth with its own simplicity and absolutism, the one true answer, the truth that is unchallengeable, uncontested, unexceptional, unchanging, final, and forever.

In politics, we look for enemies or allies. All human actions, all natural causes, all conclusions are made to work either in our favor or against us. The works of man are categorizable as inspired by either angels or devils, by the side of goodness, lightness, and reason or by the side of evil, darkness, and obstinacy, allied with our party or with the hated other. Everything fits within that mental framework. Nothing lives outside of it.

Our politics in the early part of the 21st century has perhaps reached some end stage of conceptual intolerance. People on opposite sides of all sorts of questions, from how to build a house or an automobile to how to tend a forest or raise a child or think about the weather, have become bitter enemies. The other side is not just working under false impressions, or with incomplete data, or in some measure of perceptual confusion. People on the other side are monsters of malfeasance, hatefulness, greed, and stupidity. They have secret, ulterior, anti-human motives. In fact, they are no longer human. They have joined the ranks of criminals and beasts. They have no rights which we need to recognize. They are unreachable and incurable. They should be put down without mercy or pause for understanding, like rabid dogs.

In science, we are more reasonable, sometimes. There are the things we know—which means we have examined their instances and occurrences, developed testable ideas about them, performed enough of these tests to be satisfied with the truth or reality of those ideas, and raised them to the level of principles, laws, and theories.1 And there are the things we don’t know—the grand questions, the eternal mysteries, the things we ponder in our hearts but believe that one day we will understand. We celebrate human knowledge and regret human ignorance, and we think we can draw a line between them. And, with the explosion of ideas and technologies that kicked off in the 16th and 17th centuries and created the western European “Enlightenment,” we have become ever more sure that the line is moving outward, into the darkness, radiating light, adding to the Things We Know, diminishing the category of Things We Don’t.

Even with a large portion of the observable universe still lying on the side of Things We Don’t Know, humans hunger for absolutes and propose the existence of grand unification theories. The physicists have put all known forces and interactions—which they believe includes the superset of all physical forces—into four categories. The first force is electromagnetic, which reflects the various effects of photons moving at various wavelengths. The second is the weak nuclear force, which holds a positively charged proton and negatively charged electron together as a neutron, and occasionally allows those neutrons to decay into their component parts plus a bit of energy. The third is the strong nuclear force, which holds masses of positively charged protons, plus chargeless neutrons, together in the narrow space of the atomic nucleus rather than flying apart, as all those positive charges want to do. And finally there is the fourth force, gravity, which is unlike any of the others and is variously considered an effect carried by particles known as “gravitons” in quantum mechanics, or as a property of spacetime due to its shape and structure in the theory of relativity—take your pick. For most of the 20th century and beyond physicists have tried to write equations and create models that put all these forces into one conceptual box: from particles of the Standard Model of quantum mechanics to the multiple dimensions and energies of String Theory. But what binds the universe of our observations together still remains in the realm of Things We Don’t Know.

And these days, even our science has become politically partisan. Scientists embark on a quest for answers rather than a quest for understanding. We look for a single gene or complex to explain obesity or alcoholism, rather than trying to understand the subtle interplay of genes, environment, experience, and emotion behind such conditions. We look for proof of our own propositions related to climate, society, or economics rather than admitting that what we are observing is a highly complex system that is not susceptible to one-dimensional propositions and solutions. And in all of these searches, we ignore the role of time, the ebb and flow of ideas and mental focuses, the evolution of understanding. We ignore the fact that today’s hot topics and chief problems won’t matter in a hundred or a thousand years, just as the social and economic problems and shibboleths of a hundred or a thousand years ago have since fallen from human memory.

Humans are innate model makers, rule finders, categorizers, organizers, and button, coin, and stamp collectors.

For the fit of human perception to physical reality, look at a map, almost any map. Map making is a product of human genius. Even the most complex maps are really simple objects, the products of human reduction and definition and categorization. Roads pass by here, rivers run there. A mountain stands here, a valley over there. But real roads are only as fixed as the last highway crew to pass through the neighborhood, and rivers meander with time over the underlying terrain. Mountains shade into foothills, which subside into the plains. Outflows of water and ice cut the rocks, and gravity induces landslides that carve the upthrust mountain into high crags separated by deep valleys. The definition of “mountain” and “valley” is a human construct, subject to endless estimation and surveys, followed by revisions and adjustments.

Even rivers are not single, stable things over their courses. Do you mean the river at spring flood, which overflows its banks and drowns the nearby fields? Or the late-summer trickle which can barely find its way down the gullies of the former riverbed? Drawing that river on a map is an approximation, taken at one point in time. And indeed, the river of a hundred or a million years ago may not lie anywhere near its current geographic coordinates. At the same time, those straight lines of latitude and longitude are themselves the constructs of human imagination and convenience. No straight line exists on the land, unless it’s a political boundary—and that’s another type of construct. No one knows the ancient boundaries of Pangaea.

Look at our conceptions of society, our myths and legends, our stories. The mass of humanity is divided in our minds into the Important People—once kings, nobles, and poets, now politicians, corporate titans, and celebrities like sports stars and movie actors—and everyone else. Stories are made around the extraordinary travails and adventures of heroes and heroines. Even supposed “antiheroes” and working class representatives of the “common man” are shown to have extraordinary although previously hidden abilities, attitudes, understanding, and resilience which elevate them to a special category, to become People of Interest. At the same time, everyone else in the story is an extra, a bit of movable background, simple people with plain faces and boring lives—unless they are villains driving the plot, with smiles pasted over their evil intentions and careful hairstyles, wardrobes, and pedicures covering their true horns, tail, and cloven hooves. But the truth is that even simple people with plain faces have complicated histories. Everyone believes he or she is a hero in one story or another. And no one wakes up in the morning determined to be a villain and do evil.2

The human-derived absolutes built into religion and faith are probably too obvious to mention here. But even the Buddha, who conceived of the human condition and morality without recourse to external and eternal gods, devils, and their rewards and punishments, was a systematizer and categorizer. His greatest reduction was the Four Noble Truths. These posited, first, that life itself is a process of change, which leads to anxiety, dissatisfaction, and pain. Second, that the cause of this pain is craving, clinging, attachment to transitory goods like youth, beauty, and perfection, and fear of undesirable outcomes like disease and death. Third, that the highest good is the cessation of this innate suffering. And fourth, that the path to this salvation is through personal adoption of right understanding, thought, action, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration—the Noble Eightfold Path.

But while life may indeed represent change, anyone with a mind and heart can see that some things are indeed eternal—or at least will endure long for one lifetime. A mother’s love can remain unchanged from pregnancy and birth through to the last breath. The eyes of love can sustain another person’s beauty while the bloom of youth fades, the skin wrinkles, and the faculties themselves fail. The delight one feels in practicing a hard-won or well-honed skill continues into old age. If you doubt that, ask any musician, writer, painter, surgeon, chess master, or talented salesman. In a sufficiently complex art, the adept can always find some new insight, technique, dimension, and triumph. Even grand masters are still learning and become excited by their discoveries. O Buddha! To consign all life to pain and pessimism is for small and unsubtle minds.

Any reduction of complexity to certainty, any rule making that seeks to be more than simply provisional, any view that sees absolute black and pure white in the world around us—is an illusion. A construct that we put over the real world like a map over the land. A product of human imagination that will not be found among the endless shades of gray in which the universe is painted. Rather than embark on a quest for answers and truths, we should search instead for instances of understanding against a background of infinite complexity, and then celebrate them were we find them.

The world isn’t simple. Why should we expect our view of it to be uncomplicated?

1. And science admits of two kinds of theories, which are mutually exclusive. The first is an idea that has been insufficiently tested, falling into the category of “your crackpot theory.” It’s a theory that hasn’t caught on yet, and whose truth is waiting in the wings for further validation. The second is an idea so thoroughly tested and tried, and which carries such a towering ziggurat of confident observations, that it might as well be accepted as a principle or a law—except that no one has actually found incontrovertible proof of its existence.
       The Theory of Evolution is of this latter kind: mountains of evidence support it; the entire science of genetics explains it; and its application continually yields new and productive insights in biology and medicine. And yet no one has ever seen evolution in action. No one has ever observed one species turn into another. That may be because the process is too slow for human recordkeeping, or because inter-species transitional types are too fleeting to have left their traces in the fossil record, or because the biologist’s definition of “species” is somehow flawed by being too specific or too limited. Still, evolution as a principle cannot be tested in the same way that chemistry and physics can test the conservation of matter and energy.

2. Even Stalin and Hitler thought they were serving a higher purpose against perilous odds and the threat of greater catastrophes. The ruthlessness of their actions were driven by their perceptions of great need and urgency.