Fighting with abstracts

This one’s going to be a little bit weird. I mean, more so than usual. It started as just an offhand comment, but grew into a strange bit of philosophical inspection.

I recently read, yet again, the journalistic cliché about someone “beating the odds.” Which is complete nonsense. No one ever beats the odds, though they might fall right in line with the odds in a favorable way – being the one in five million people who wins the lottery, for example. Even if, by some strange chance, they continually, repeatedly got results against all probabilistic expectations, they still didn’t beat the odds, the odds simply changed. Probability is based entirely on what actually happens; it’s not a law unto itself.

Yet, it gets even weirder. Why do we even say anything at all like, “she beat the odds”? As if she physically battled with some abstract concept, where victory could be distinct? If there’s anything that could not possibly be engaged in any form of combat, it would be an abstract idea. Our language has millions of these examples, both objectifying and personifying concepts that we have created entirely from our imaginations – we struggle to learn math, or win out over stubbornness; we beat the rain home, or even teach that squeaky door a lesson. We spend a ridiculous amount of time first assigning some form of agency or personality to objects and ideas, and then engaging in competition with them.

Steven Pinker observed this in How The Mind Works, giving it as evidence of the overriding functions that form human cognition. Despite the immense numbers of things that we encounter that we should be able to view in an entirely neutral manner, we much more often subject them to a ‘friend or foe’ perspective, something that either helps us along in our lives or forms an obstacle to our goals. Some of this really is true, to a certain extent; food might be on the other side of that river (or downtown traffic,) and so we must endure a certain level of hardship, expend more than average effort, in order to achieve the rewards. While it doesn’t seem a big jump to go from, “This is a little harder than I’d prefer,” to, “This is actively blocking me from my goal,” there yet remains no reason to become even frustrated over it, much less view it in terms of competition or adversity. Instead, the idea of competition is so ingrained within our minds that we use it everywhere – and, to the best of my knowledge, in every language and culture.

This is just one example of why an intelligent extra-terrestrial species might have a great deal of difficulty in translating and understanding our language – there is an unknown likelihood that they possess no such traits and wouldn’t understand why we do. But even sticking to this planet, it gives a faint indication why we have so much difficulty with conflict and warfare: we can’t actually get them out of our minds. Rather than living harmoniously with our surroundings, or treating random events as just things that happen, we consider our individual existence as a competition against forces trying to prevent us from our goals. That this is an evolved trait that perpetuated itself seems a given; it’s not hard to see that treating impediments to our survival as a challenge, a test of our very egos, probably produces a more immediate and stronger response than seeing the same thing as just ‘what happens.’ We’re more likely to persevere in any undertaking when we take it personally. Think about the difference between an accomplishment, such as completing a puzzle, and a challenge, like considering our inability to complete the puzzle (which is meaningless after all) to be an indication of failure on our part.

Certainly, it’s been a useful trait. The puzzle of preventing polio, for instance, was solved largely because it was egotistical, a challenge to our abilities; think instead if just the people who had polio, the ones who would benefit directly from its disappearance, were the only ones concerned about it. Even if this had been the case, what was produced was a preventive vaccine, not a cure, and those afflicted received no benefit from it. Don’t let me sell it short, because empathy towards others, including our own genetic line, played a very large part as well – we would prefer not to see anyone stricken. Some of it, too, was seeing children coping with the disease, since that fires up our protective responses. But then again, how much of a part do these play towards eradicating world hunger? This goal should be easily within our grasp, yet it falls well behind the quest for personal wealth and status, far too often. There’s no easy way to tell how much we’re motivated by social justice and protecting children, and how much we’re driven by a nonexistent competition with the world we live in, but we can’t deny that the latter remains a strong influence on our thinking.

It makes me wonder how much of a part it plays in another mystery that I ponder occasionally. While there are plenty of explanations about how humans could have created the concept of gods, it’s harder to justify why so many of these beings are considered kind and beneficent, especially in the face of both scriptural accounts of wrath, and the belief that gods are responsible for the cataclysmic events of the earth. But let’s face it: if a being is both omnipotent and antagonistic, well, game over, man – it’s not a competition that we’re ever going to win. However, let’s say we can win big if, and only if, we play by the rules… that pretty much describes most religions, doesn’t it? And it explains why religions get involved in so much competition and antagonism of their own. It certainly makes a lot more sense than a god, who created humans with certain tendencies, playing games with them that end in perpetual reward or punishment, like souls are poker chips.

So can we call this competitive viewpoint good, or bad? Well, neither, really – that’s just another trait coming into play, one of trying to slot things into distinct categories and make quick decisions. Like most things we might encounter in our world, it can have a lot of different effects on us. Instead, it just helps to know that it’s there, and can appear just about anytime, useful or not. Perhaps that’s enough to let us ignore it when it’s provoking (heh!) us towards an attitude or action that won’t really be beneficial.