Tag Archives: Inspiration

The Real Lord of the Flies

Scene from the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Flies

Although I somehow got away without reading it, a large percentage of high-schoolers read The Lord of the Flies, the story of a pack of adolescent boys stranded on an island. It starts off optimistically enough, with a democratic assembly and three rules: (1) have fun; (2) survive; and (3) keep a fire going to alert any passing ships. By the end of the book, the island is in ruins, the boys have devolved into warring tribes, and three of them are dead.

The novel’s dark view of human nature is the default view in Western culture. It is as old and pervasive as, well, original sin.

Fortunately, the book is only a work of fiction. This week, I learned what happened when a pack of boys was shipwrecked in real life. The outcome was quite different, as you can read here: The real Lord of the Flies. In a nutshell, the boys form a cooperative society. They start and end each day with a song and a prayer. (The Catholic school from which they had escaped would be pleased!) They fashion a guitar out of a coconut and salvaged wire, which they play to cheer themselves up. They allocate duties fairly and with a buddy system. When a quarrel does break out, they solve it with a “time out” rather than violence. When they are finally rescued after 15 months, they are astonishingly healthy and sane. I commend the whole article to you; read it and let your spirits be lifted!

Some people are real villains, but most of us want to do the right thing, even if we struggle at times.

Appendix: While rooting around the Internet for this post, I came across this account of a researcher who tried to construct a Lord of the Flies scenario artificially: A real-life Lord of the Flies: the troubling legacy of the Robbers Cave Experiment. Psychologist Mufazer Sherif manipulated some boys at a summer camp to try to make them fight each other. The first experiment did not go well — for the experimenters. The second experiment produced the result that Sherif desired and became standard reading in the field but, these days, should make us skeptical of all such experiments.

Dare to Make an Empty Map

1459 Map of the World

Have you ever seen an ancient map? Many of them showed the edge of the Earth, sea monsters, or coastlines that were more imaginary than real. Others, such as the one above, claimed to show the whole world but showed only Europe, Asia and Africa.

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Zarathustra Speaks to the Trees

Yesterday, I took a hike in the woods with some philosophically minded friends. I wrote something for the occasion, in the spirit of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

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Frederick Douglass on Globalization

I’m a few days late to the party, but today I found myself rereading Frederick Douglass’s magnificent oration, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? As with all great texts, you come away with something different each time you read it. Last time, its applicability to LGBT rights struck me. This time, I noticed his closing thoughts on the positive ways the world is changing.

Writing 164 years ago, he noticed trends which have happily extended to this day. They are some of the same themes Stephen Pinker sounded in one of my favorite books, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

For your encouragement, and without further comment, I turn this post over to Frederick Douglass:

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When Has a Dragon Ever Died of the Poison of a Snake?

It has been a very public week for victims of horrible crimes. Dzhjokhar Tsarnaev’s victims spoke at his formal death sentencing, and the families of the Charletson Massacre’s victims have been in the national media.

Most noted among the Charleston families was Nadine Collier, who said to killer Dylann Roof, “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you and I forgive you.”

Rebekah Gregory, who lost a leg to Boston Marathon bomber Tsarnaev, struck a very different tone. Looking defiantly at the murderer, she said, “While your intention was to destroy America, what you have really accomplished is actually quite the opposite – you’ve unified us. We are Boston strong, we are America strong, and choosing to mess with us was a terrible idea. So how’s that for your VICTIM impact statement?”

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The Comforts of the Multiverse

I’ve  been reading Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. What a wonderful book! This is my third or fourth time through it and I find something new to appreciate each time.

In all likelihood, there are not only multiple universes, but an infinite number of them. This is what most versions of eternal inflation entail. The evidence for inflation grows stronger every year, and eternal inflation is the most likely variety of it.

Greene’s book explores half a dozen versions of the multiverse (multiple, or parallel, universes), and most of them are not mutually exclusive. There could be several flavors of parallelism at work simultaneously.

One likely aspect of the multiverse is what Greene calls the Swiss cheese model, in which our universe is like one of the bubbles in a block of Swiss cheese. The block has always existed, and has always been infinite in extent. (To those who ask, “Where did it come from?” I would reply, “Why should nothing be the default state? If there were nothing, we would be asking, ‘Who took everything away?’ …except we would not be here to ask that.”) The block expands due to processes that I only started to understand on this reading of the book and which I won’t attempt to explain here. In fact, it has always been expanding (but has always been infinite — infinity is a strange thing). Once in a while, a quantum fluctuation causes a “bubble” to form, one of which is our universe. These bubbles are carried away from each other in the expanding block, keeping them as isolated and distinct universes.

Because this has been happening forever, the number of bubble universes is already infinite. An infinite number are yet to come.

This post is not about how all that might work. For now, I only want to dwell on why I find this idea of infinite universes so comforting.

To appreciate it, you first must grasp just what infinity entails. Think of repeating an experiment an infinite number of times. If your experiment is to roll a pair of dice, then every possible outcome would happen at least once. In fact, it would happen an infinite number of times. Double-sixes? An infinite number of them. That’s amazing, but we’re just getting started.

Suppose your experiment is to thoroughly shuffle a deck of cards. Any outcome you can think of will be represented, including the outcome of the deck sorted just as it was when the box was opened: all the spades, followed by all the diamonds, clubs and hearts, and sorted by rank within suit. In fact, that will happen an infinite number of times. It’s harder to believe than getting an infinite number of double-sixes, but it’s true for exactly the same reason. Infinity is really big!

It’s so big that if instead of dice or cards, you were to play with a finite number of atoms arranged in a finite space, then every physically possible arrangement would be among the outcomes of the experiment. What is our universe, but a finite number of atoms in a finite space? Yes, if there are infinitely many universes, then others exactly identical to ours appear an infinite number of times (assuming, Greene hastens to add, that there’s nothing special about ours, and there is no reason to think there is).

Not only that, but there are others identical to ours except for that one detail of ours that bothers you the most.

That is the first comfort: If things have gone badly here, there’s a universe where they went well. An infinite number of them, in fact.

Of course, there’s also a place where they went much, much worse, so in case you’re a glass-half-empty sort of person let’s turn to the second comfort.

The nice thing about eternal inflation is that it will go on without us. Not only that, but when our universe has finally turned cold and dark, other universes will just be getting started, while in others the first life-forms will be starting to stir, just beginning their billion-year climb up the evolutionary ladder first to sentience, then to full awareness of their world, and finally to awestruck wonder at the universe they inhabit.

Why is this a comfort? Sometimes I feel responsible for so much. I have a family that is undergoing a lot of stress at the moment, a job in which I’m behind schedule, a book I’m writing, and even a musical instrument I have neglected for several months. I take my responsibilities seriously, but it’s nice to know that regardless of how well or poorly I do, the multiverse will go on without me.

It does not all depend on me or on you, even though sometimes it feels that way.

Look to the sky on the darkest, starriest night. Think about everything you see repeated in every possible variation, an infinite number of times. Think about the entire history of this universe, again repeated with infinite variations, more beautiful than the simultaneous play of a million kaleidoscopes. To think that all that beauty will continue to multiply with or without you … doesn’t that lighten the load?

C.S. Lewis’s Truth-Loving Test

A few months ago, we heard this from Plato. It was his way of determining who loved truth and who didn’t.

What I proposed was having our children be told glorious tales to stir their imaginations, very much stressing all the time that these tales were true, and then seeing which among the children can resist them, can see the logical inconsistencies within these tales, and see all their inconsistencies with other truths that they have been told.

Here’s another truth-loving test, from C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity. (In the book, he did not propose this as a truth-loving test, but I think it makes an excellent one.)

The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

I read the quote over at Slacktivist’s blog. He had earlier treated the theme in a wonderful post called Jackie at the crossroads. In that story, a young woman named Jackie has claimed there are poisonous spiders in airport restrooms, former stow-aways on international flights. When she is shown that this is just an urban legend, she has a choice: she can double-down or laughingly admit her gullibility. Her choice is a very clear window on her character.

How about us? When we learn that the rumor we have spread about our political or religious adversaries is unfounded, is our first reaction to be relieved that they are not so bad after all? Or do we double down by finding another way they are so bad, or by calling the refutation “biased” even though it is our own bias that has just been exposed?