I will conclude these posts on cultural engagements with twelve episodes illustrating a few of my personal engagements as divided among four successive posts. Here are the first three.

1. Rush Week. In 1951, I was living in a fraternity in Boston as a sophomore at MIT. Early in the term, fraternities entertained prospective pledges from among the incoming freshman class. I was particularly struck by the mental acuity and good nature of a student from India. I took him around the house, played Ping-Pong with him, sat with him at lunch, and thought he made an excellent candidate.

After lunch, the president of the fraternity took me aside and told me I was doing a great job stringing the boy along, making him feel welcome, while there wasn’t a chance in hell we would pledge a dark foreigner.

My response to that news was to find an apartment near Kenmore Square and to quit the fraternity I could no longer belong to because of its Whites-only policy, which I naively hadn’t realized was part of its deep-South traditions from post-Civil-War days. I haven’t stepped into a fraternity house for sixty-four years.

2. Pierre Monteux conducting Berlioz. In a recent post I mentioned coming upon a Boston Symphony performance led by Pierre Monteux conducting Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. That was one of the most moving experiences of my college life, which I stumbled into during a Wednesday afternoon walk when I found the door open at Symphony Hall. A sandwich-board on the sidewalk announced an open rehearsal, so, out of curiosity, I went in and sat in the back row. I knew Berlioz from WGBH broadcasts, but had never been present at a live performance. Monteux raised his baton just as I took my seat.

What caught my attention was actually witnessing the different instruments and sections playing the music that I heard with my ears. It was the simultaneous presence of hearing the music and seeing its lively performance at the same time that astonished me. My eyes and ears reinforced each other, adding to an experience I had never had until that day.

It was the seeing that sticks with me, the actual display of sounds being produced through human effort. Violins, cellos, bases, brass, woodwinds, tympani—I can see them all. The standing percussionist striking the suspended chimes with a small mallet produced sounds I had never fully appreciated until then. He is with me today as I write these words, making a guest appearance in my mind, reminding me of my discovery of what “in concert” actually means.

3. Tripping on the Long Island Railroad. In Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, I took all the physics, chemistry, and math classes that were offered. By my senior year, there were no more to take. Back in Hamilton, my ninth-grade science teacher had sent home a note telling my parents that he thought I had a knack for science, and might pursue it as a career. In Seattle, I took an aptitude test to see if that was really the case. In disbelief, I looked over the bar graph of the results: I was high in arts and humanities, low in science. Stupid test! I instantly dismissed it. As a senior I went all-or-nothing, applying to MIT and no other school. For good or ill, I got in.

The first year was made up solely of meeting core requirements, with one token humanities course. In my second year I took differential equations, heading toward a major in physics—I thought acoustics sounded nice. But I ran out of steam, and decided to quit school. My mother got on my case and convinced me to see out the year. Which I grudgingly did. I went to a counsellor, and applied to Columbia in New York as a transfer student. I was scheduled for an interview on the Columbia campus, so arranged to stay with friends of my parents on Long Island the night before, and took the bus from Boston to New York, then the LIRR to Port Washington.

A memorable trip under heavy skies. I spent most of my time staring out the rain-spattered window at heavy wires strung next to the tracks on what I still think of as telegraph poles. From my perspective looking out the window, the wires rose to the level of the crossbars on successive poles, then fell in great swoops in between, rising and falling like waves mile-after-mile, putting me into a kind of hypnotic trance. I wasn’t thinking about anything—then the truth burst upon me: There is no God! There can’t be any God because I can’t square God with those wires, which are absolutely real. I was totally engaged with the rhythm of the wires strung along the tracks; there was no room for God in that experience. He was superfluous. Irrelevant. God, I saw, was a vain conceit of ancient peoples in all their innocence. It was not a rational thought, it simply came to me as a bolt out of gray skies and those up-and-down wires.

It was one of the most powerful realizations of my life. Transformative. Everything up to then culminated in those lilting wires along the Long Island Railroad. It was like a dam had burst inside me as a declaration of undoubted truth. Farewell, creator, ruler, judge, and confessor. Banished by clarity. Blessed clarity washing over and through me. Had I been that wishy-washy all those years? I abruptly discovered I was capable of independent thought. Well, not thought, really, but profound insight. I knew I was right; my entire life until then added up to that moment. Childhood fell away; everything would be different from now on.

(Copyright © 2009)

My freshman year in college, I learned about what were nicely called “fudge factors” in math class. You’d do your homework, of course, and compare the answer you got with the one in the back of the book. If they were different, you’d simply adjust your answer by a fudge factor that would make it come out right.

Fudge factors are as old as the hills. And as new as today. When I feel lightheaded and can’t think, I say it’s the new or full moon, or low atmosphere pressure, or something I ate, or I’m having a bad day, or I’m just not myself, or I got up on the wrong side of the bed. Whatever is not going right can be explained by one kind of fudge factor or another that when applied, helps me adjust to the circumstances I’m in.

In the Second World War, when airplanes didn’t perform as they should, it was blamed on gremlins, ill-tempered little  beings who loved to gum up the works. Gremlins were fudge factors that marked problems until an explanation could be found. Kilrokilroywasherey played a somewhat similar function during the war as Allied Forces advanced through Europe, showing up in the damndest places as a little face with a big nose peering over a fence drawn above the slogan, “Kilroy was here.” Wherever you went, Kilroy always got there first, making foreign parts feel almost familiar to troops far from home.

Fudge factors are some of the first principles of consciousness. We are so earnest in wanting things to turn out right, we enlist them to do the heavy lifting of making events as they turn out conform to our hopes and basic assumptions. If we believe in a supreme being, then everything that happens expresses the will of that being. God hurled Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans to punish the city for its errant ways. Nothing is neater and tidier than that trick. Or for good or ill, whatever happens is a matter of luck. If you luck-out, you win; if you don’t, you lose. Either way, the assumption holds. Similarly, if you believe in astrology, you can’t go wrong. Whatever happens in life is a function of alignments and relationships between planets at the moment of birth (or conception). The system is so complicated and subject to subtle shadings of influence, everything ends up being a function of every possible effect, proving the worth of the system. Astrology works particularly well in hindsight so once knowing the effect, you can give proper credit to whatever cause you select.

Consciousness comes fully equipped with the latest fudge factors. Whatever you believe, you can justify; whatever you justify, you can believe. I believe ecosystems run all life on Earth. Wherever I look, there be ecosystems. Interfere with ecosystems, you interfere with life in that place. If life goes wrong, look to the ecosystems that support it. Neat, simple, and maybe even partly right. But ecosystems are never the whole story; they are the rationale by which I make sense to myself, my personal fudge factor in reconciling my understanding with the facts. “Ecosystem” is shorthand for a complex biological system beyond my comprehension. “Watershed” is of the same order in, as I say, receiving, storing, and distributing the water on which all life depends. When I look on a landscape, I see watersheds. Ah ha, see there! Moisture flowing through the land, bringing it to life—just as I said it would.

Or you could say of an event, it was fated to happen. In northern climes, snow generally melts in March or April, so the landscape seems fated to restore itself shortly thereafter. Fate is one of the oldest fudge factors because it explains everything. Whatever happens is fated to happen. Thus it is written in the great book of time. You don’t need to understand biological systems to give all credit to fate for how things work out. Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be—as if it was all written out beforehand, as somebody or something knew it would turn out.

Mother Nature is also a common fudge factor. I’ve heard a great many fishermen credit her with masterminding the migrations of fish, the relative abundance of species year to year, ups and downs of thermometers and barometers and tide gauges, and so on. Mother Nature works through natural cycles of dearth and plenty, bad years and good. Exploitation of resources has nothing to do with it. What happens is what she wants to happen. If a fishery gets depleted, you just turn to another—usually lower in the food pyramid. If a fishery recovers somewhat, you say “I told you it would, you’ve got to have faith in Mother Nature.”

Of course Mother Nature is the female counterpart of God the ultimate Father. We seem to like our fudge factors to take on a human guise so we can relate to them up-front and personally. Instead of seeing God as a creation of the human mind, we turn the notion on its head and see God as the creator of the universe—including the human mind—who controls everything that happens. On that assumption, there are no mysteries anymore because God is the ultimate cause, and you just trace everything back to him. That way you feel you understand everything when in fact you understand nothing. God is just a manner of speaking—a verbal figment whose only meaning is the ritualized suite of behaviors we perform when we mention his name. That, and the attitude of submission we assume in abandoning our quest to understand the workings of the world. Those who pose rational arguments against claims for God’s existence are wasting their time. The concept of God is not rational. Like any fudge factor, God is an expedient to deploy when you haven’t done your homework. God is a cop-out, not an answer to a serious question.

In minds where God holds forth in broad daylight, the Devil frequently lurks in his shadow. God is assigned the job of making good things happen, the Devil of bringing destruction and disaster wherever he can in his capacity as ultimate gremlin. The Devil puts a face on entropy, and makes it intentional in fulfilling a preconceived purpose. Ascribing consciousness to gods, devils, gremlins, elves, and even Uncle Scrooge makes them all agents of ourselves—the projectors—as if we fully understood what was going on. This demonstrates the weakness in Bishop Ockham’s razor by which the simplest explanation is likely to apply. Nothing is simpler than projecting consciousness into fictitious beings—yet even though it makes us feel good, it leaves our preconceived assumptions absolutely intact. Fudge factors mock true learning and intelligence by the shoddiness with which they are applied. We may entertain them with good-humored affection—as Kilroy was held by G.I.s in World War II—but in truth we are kidding ourselves if we take the joke seriously.

Fudge factors transform dross into treasure, which is what alchemists tried to do in transmuting base metals into noble ones. They serve as a kind of philosophers’ stone for rubbing tarnish off one thing, making it shine like something else as if mere friction could turn lead into gold. In that sense, fudge factors are elixirs of the mind for turning the annoying into the acceptable, the bad into the good, the not-so-good into the perfect. Fudge factors and elixirs are underlying principles whose falsity and absurdity are not taken into account because only the seeming results are what matter. They are lies we tell ourselves in striving toward little-t truth.

Science, on the other hand, messy as it is, relies on evidence, not magical explanations. If it has a magic elixir, it is likely a supposed dependence on reason rather than hunches, trial and error, persistence, and sometimes luck in being in the right place at the right time to witness a particular phenomenon. Scientists often employ the human faculty of insight—an exercise in informed imagination—which nobody truly understands, but can sometimes lead the way to discovery. The difference between insights and elixirs is that one comes from inside the problem itself as an organic extension, while the other is laid on from the outside to make it work out in an acceptable manner, so confirming prior belief. Science, then, is capable of moving forward; fudge factors always send us back where we were. At its best, science is progressive, while reliance on magical thinking is regressive, allowing us to think we are moving ahead while we are actually stuck in our tracks.

Attitude is the key to choosing between magic elixirs and true insights. Do we insist on claiming to know, or are we willing to live with the fact that we don’t? If we fall in the first class, pride and rigidity are our undoing. If in the second, disbelief and humility are our burden. The difference is told by the fabled race between tortoise and hare. Hare bounds effortlessly ahead, then sits on his haunches and gloats. Tortoise digs in with each claw and lurches in a direction he can’t fully appreciate—until he crosses the finish line first and discovers where he was headed all along. Those who leap lithely without fully challenging themselves are apt to fall behind; those who pull themselves along by doing the work required to go one step at a time will eventually cover more ground than those who advance by fits and starts.

Either way, the issue is to find a way of dealing effectively with our current situation as we construe it in consciousness. I mean the italics to emphasize the difference between, on one hand, thinking we already know the world as it is, and on the other, assuming responsibility for shaping that world by means of rigorous probing of personal experience. Elixirs and fudge factors provide ready answers as if we knew what we were talking about, providing immediate comfort in a false sense of security; taking trouble to investigate why we see things as we do commits us to a much more arduous path which, in the end, can lead to surprising and even profound insights into our true situation. The choice is ours to make, the understanding ours to earn.

Fudge factors and elixirs are the easy way out. In life, there are no answers in the back of the book because the book has never been written. Lead cannot be transmuted into gold no matter how hard we wish it so. Put differently, each of us must write her own book by living her life as best she can. That’s why I say attitude is so important in exploring consciousness. We can seed it with what we already know—and learn nothing. Or we can live with doubt and uncertainty by questioning everything we do. One way leads backward, one forward.

I opt to move ahead by studying how I visualize my own situation in the world, how I construe it, shape it, formulate it, depict it, describe it, concoct it, characterize it—all on my own. Without resorting to fudge factors, elixirs, gods, angels, devils, or easy answers of any kind. Life, in the end, is the result of how we live. It does not exist as an abstract entity we magically fulfill by being born. Life is neither this nor that—it is precisely what we make it for ourselves from our own inner stuff. Life is the process of making sense under the circumstances we find ourselves in, which we can only interpret as best we can, and then reconsider in light of what happens next. There are no right answers; there is only what we do.

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