Grey Matter

Every thirty seconds a small green trap door opens, dispensing a handful of seed for a hungry pigeon. The pigeon turns and fidgets, eagerly awaiting its next snack. It pivots and turns nervously counter-clockwise, and the door snaps open yet again. The bird pecks a few morsels of sunflower seed before the door clicks shut yet again. Suddenly, the pigeon begins to turn counter-clockwise, waddling its tiny feet across the green plastic floor of its cage. It completes a full rotation before the door opens again, bidding it to nibble away at a few more seeds. Now it begins to turn in wobbly counter-clockwise circles triumphantly, convinced that it has unlocked the key to all the sunflower seeds it desires. Its tiny cage is nestled alongside a host of others, each a habitat for a single hungry pigeon. Some of the birds rock their heads from side to side like pendulums. Others raise and lower their wings in a pantomime of flight. All of them have convinced themselves that they have discovered the ritual; that they have unlocked the key to the secret of the green trap door.

It’s not hard to imagine primitive man staring up at the chaotic infinity of the night sky, in an era before electricity or streetlights or GPS. They see before them something they cannot possibly understand. With all the self-assured confidence of superstitious pigeons, they connect the fiery dots into familiar shapes, and give them names: Pisces, Aquarius, Orion. They look to the brightest and most active of these points of distant light and give them power and sacred names. They call them Jupiter, Saturn, Mars. All of them think that they have unlocked the secrets of the cosmos, and that they have decoded the skies.

Superstition is a response of all intelligent life. It’s a coping mechanism that learning organisms use when confronted with something that eclipses their awareness or their intellect. Our reality is presented to us as a dazzling array of sights and sounds, smells and tastes. When confronted with this overwhelming barrage of sensory data, our urge is to simplify it; to find patterns in the chaos and use them to orient ourselves. Animals as simple as bees and as complex as humans use this pattern-finding impulse to distill this tremendous amount of information into something useful. We wish to separate the meaningful from the irrelevant in order to best pursue our ultimate objective: staying alive.

As the example of the caged pigeons shows, our desire to find patterns in chaos often works against us. This is the origin of superstition. We begin to connect completely unrelated ideas in an attempt to make sense of things we can’t readily understand. Our propensity for connecting dots becomes our most unforgiving enemy. We fabricate dots where none can readily be found, and we mistake coincidence for correlation. Ultimately we become trapped in a world of ritual and superstition, an entangled web of our own creation.

Nearly every ancient civilization shared a notion of fundamental elements, primeval building blocks of nature. The Ancient Greeks believed that the entire cosmos was composed of earth, water, air, fire, and ether. They identified these elements with the five platonic solids: the tetrahedron, the cube, the octahedron, the icosahedron, and the dodecahedron. These primitive shapes survive today in the form of dice. The Greeks constructed an entire theory of space and matter from these simple building blocks. They thought, for example, that the tetrahedron, resembling a pyramid, was identified with fire, because of its sharp points. They thought the cube represented earth, because of its sturdy geometrical shape, and the way that it can stack and pack sturdily. Of course, their choice of 5 elements was completely arbitrary and meaningless. Why, for example, couldn’t lightning be considered a primal element, or lava? Philosophers and natural scientists like Plato and Aristotle, undoubtedly some of the smartest people of their time, had detailed theories about these elements, their corresponding solids, and the way that they comprised the entire cosmos.

Obviously, the connection between these imaginary elements and their respective solids was completely imagined. The elements were chosen arbitrarily, and their correspondence with the number of platonic solids is pure coincidence.

Yet still, this way of seeing the world was the dominant form of thinking in many western civilizations for millenia. In fact, the Greco-Roman notion that the human body and the mind were governed by balances of elemental bodily fluids called “humors” persisted all the way into the 18th century, a startlingly modern time. It is slightly chilling to imagine that while Isaac Newton was formulating his model of physics – which is still relevant today – someone down the street was having their “excess” yellow bile drained in order to “balance their humors”.

In a nutshell, this is our problem. Undoubtedly, both Newton and the leech-happy doctors were perfectly satisfied that their theories could be backed by straightforward reasoning and a wealth of data. With the hindsight of nearly three centuries, we can clearly see that one of them was right, and one of them was startlingly wrong. In retrospect, the blood-letting doctor seems like a relic of an embarrassingly primitive time, no more in command of the human body than the pigeon is in command of the trap-door.

This form of superstition, however, is special among pattern-seeking animals. It represents something unique, and it is the characteristic that has made humans the singular dominant species of our planet. What we see is the early formation of a scientific approach to pattern-seeking behavior. This scientific approach is the result of an amazing feat of abstract thought. We look at the patterns that we’ve found in nature, and we examine them. We discard the ones that don’t correspond to reality, and the ones that fail to be self-consistent. This, in essence, is the most basic scientific method. We search for patterns to explain the world around us, and we expand upon the patterns that we can verify.

Newton happened to make very salient observations about the nature of physics, but he did so by comparing the reality he observed to the dominant theories of the past, paring away ideas that were incongruent with his observations and replacing them with new ones. In his own words, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

It is this mechanism of refinement that separates us from most other organisms on Earth. Humans are capable of self-awareness and evaluation. This leads us to see much more elaborate and sophisticated patterns, because we connect ideas and concepts instead of raw stimuli. Surely, a pigeon can see the door that opens to feed it. With enough repetition, it will even recognize it and expect the payload of seeds. However, is a pigeon really in posession of an “idea” of a door? In the mind of a pigeon, does a door have significance as a concept, or is it simply the physical object in front of them that they recognize? A human could see a small trap-door in the floor and a giant castle gate and connect those two very different objects to the same basic concept: Door. That concept is then in turn connected to other, more abstract concepts that exist only within the confines of our own minds.

This process of abstraction is the source of our greatest fulfillments and our most terrible existential pain. It is the inspiration for the Mona Lisa and the hydrogen bomb, and it’s the connection between the summit of our triumphs and the deepest chasms of our defeats. Our brains are powerful engines of logic and discernment; the only responsibility that we have is to use them.