In which our intrepid author takes on important notions while scarcely mentioning the actual topic at all, hoping to enlighten himself while offending no one. Tall order.

So, concepts. Concepts, I think, are mostly patterns that we perceive in the weather in the stuff that surrounds us, almost all of which is in our imagination, maybe all of it, since our senses have the job of creating patterns in our head that, if we are to survive, are fairly well correlated with, well, let me call it reality.

Are there bears out there? I don’t know. There are patterns in the weather that seem large compared to ourselves, register as brown to most of us, cause us to imagine loud low-pitched largely chaotic sounds, and associated with these patterns is one where you “run” but the “bear” runs faster and you experience great “pain”, and later your “friends” “find” your “body” torn to shreds. So, we agree among ourselves, the survivors, who only had to “run” faster than you, that “bears” exist.

I suppose there is no way to know whether “things” exist, but we mostly all see them and hear them and experience their bites much the same way, so whatever in the weather is causing that, we’ll call it reality. Bears, pretty much, “exist”. But our minds, the part of our own weather to which we attribute our odd habit of thinking, not about important things like bears, but instead things like “thinking”, our mind sees patterns everywhere. We are, arguably, pattern recognition machines. Or creatures. Or patterns in the weather.

So we “see” patterns, and because we also do speaking-hearing patterns, we give these patterns names like “tall”, “short”, and so on. These are not patterns in the weather … they are patterns in our own thinking. It turns out, perhaps fortunately for us and perhaps unfortunately for the world, that because all our experiences are somewhat alike, to the amazing point that we have developed languages with which we can more or less share our impressions of whatever the world is and agree to call that thing a bear, that we come, in the circles we run in—oh god do we ever run in circles—to have mostly useful common notions of properties, say “tall” and “short”, useful in the sense that when we use those notions in speech, most folx seem to understand what we’re saying.

But these notions’ realness is, at best, the reality of a cloud that looks like a sheep. The notions’ realness is vague, variable, and we don’t always agree on the details. We just have a somewhat common agreement that, yeah, those things are tall and those are short.

It turns out that we do this patterning thing imperfectly, and differently. I suspect that your notion of tall and short are not quite the same as mine. We’d probably agree on most things, but around the edges, we’d probably disagree on some classifications. And, let’s face it, tall and short are easy.

And yet, we can’t really get it right. Some of these notions are inherited, in a linguistic kind of sense, from centuries ago, perhaps from before the dawn of history. All of us here in my tribe pretty much agree that anyone taller than Trog over there is tall, and anyone shorter than Grom is pretty darn short. But in your tribe, Tall is taller than Wog and short is shorter than Bok. Wars have been fought over these matters, but as we learn to communicate more and better, we have had to come up with other reasons to fight.

To help deal with these important matters, we invented “scientists”, which were originally mostly old white men who had too much time on their hands and went around measuring how tall people were and stuff, and these “scientists” began to try to tie down the more difficult terms that we’d all used for literally ever, like “man” and “woman”. As scientists, but not very good ones, they made their determination based primarily on the distribution of concavity and convexity, which was arguably an elegant method, but didn’t really cover all the bases, so to speak. We’ll set that difficult problem aside and come back to it.

We knew that formerly, we couldn’t agree on whether Chuck is tall or not, he’s kind of in the middle, but we solved that by inventing “statistics”, which we applied to all kinds of useful matters, like finding the average height of everyone in Britain and declaring that since Chuck was below the mean, he was short. Of course there were people who wanted to use the median, not the mean, but they themselves were outliers and we resolved to deal with them in a later iteration of out measurement of everything.

Meanwhile, mostly ignoring and ignored by the “scientists”, people continue to classify common ideas. Let’s take an easy one. Are you “healthy”, or are you “unhealthy”? Your bones ache, you say? Well, how old are you? If you’re eighty-two, and your bones ache but the flesh has not yet started rotting off of them, you’re in pretty good shape. If you’re twenty, we’d better look into it.

We’d like to have a firm definition of healthy vs unhealthy, if for no other reason than to decide to which people we should offer health insurance. (You’d be a fool to offer insurance to the unhealthy, you’ll lose your money.)

But guess what: nature, which amounts to weather patterns in the swirl of quantum foam or something, doesn’t really divide everything up into impermeable sections of “healthy” or “unhealthy”. It just doesn’t work that way. You can go swirling along in the foam, apparently as healthy as could be by all tests and then one morning bang! you’re at death’s door. Maybe after they study you for a while, they’ll come up with a new test. But even then, we can’t isolate out “healthy” from “unhealthy”. Bok has a hangnail, Grom has a funny feeling in his hand. Which one is more healthy? Nine out of ten doctors disagree. No, wait, that’s not possible unless they also notice Bok’s lazy eye and Grom’s drooling. Now we could have 16 doctors all disagreeing. Swell, they probably would, too.

And now we come to the crux: male/female, man/woman, masculine/feminine. (These are not six words for the same things, by the way.) Many of us think that we know what those words mean, because mostly when someone says “look at that man over there”, and there are two people over there, we know which one they meant. Mostly.

We view a hand gesture. We see its grace and smoothness and call it “feminine”. Then we see it done full speed and someone falls down because we just found out that Tai Chi is just slow-motion butt kicking and we are like oh, that was “masculine”.

Let’s step away from those difficult six words again. All our words, I offer, are nothing more than sounds we associate, by long learning, with patterns we see in the world. And those patterns are not discrete, sharply delineated, IS / IS NOT.

I’m not sure about bears, they might be pretty well delineated, but suppose we found Bok in the woods, face down, scratched to hell, and we looked at the marks and some of us said “lion got ‘im” and some of us said “no, tiger got ‘im”. Little do we know that while lions and tigers do not share the same territory, they can mate and you get either a tigon or a liger, depending on whether the father was a tiger or a lion. Poor Bok fell to a liger, it turns out. We were all wrong. Who knew?

Turns out that ligers are fertile, so you can get creatures that aren’t half and half, but are various fractions of lion and tiger in their genes, but any of them could take down Bok in a second if they cared to, leaving Bok no time to do a chromosome analysis before his unfortunate demise. What about a cross-bred animal who was 15/16 tiger and 1/16 lion? Might look enough like a tiger that we’d all shout “tiger”, trying to warn Bok, but is it a tiger? Would Bok be wrong to say “hold on there, I think there’s a bit of lion in there”? Well, in some formal sense, perhaps, but In this case the quick identification is more useful. In other contexts, Bok’s n-th generation grandson, had Bok not hesitated, might have been a scientist to whom 15/16 tiger/lion is an important issue.

Now what of male/female, man/woman/ feminine/masculine? These pairs are listed, I think, in decreasing order of how concrete they are, and therefore increasing order of how difficult they are. And yet, even the most concrete of them, male/female, is still at best a mostly agreed classification of a perceived pattern in a very very much more complex reality. Really. Does that cloud look more like a boy, or a girl? Experts do not agree. The more abstract the notion, the more room there is for differing meanings, separated by background, location, culture, education, any number of other classifications that seem to lead to varying understanding, and varying use of similar terms.

Right now, as a world, as a culture, we are struggling with many terms, including those six. I believe that it is generally helpful to try to find “agreement” on words, because it is only through agreement that we can avoid serious and horrible kinds of conflict. And we must at least recognize that our particular interpretation of the cloud is not “correct”, even if all our friends and neighbors mostly agree on it, except for Grom, who thought it looked more like a carrot. Grom, let’s face it, rides a different pony than the rest of us.

It’s not a “boy” because our village sees a boy and it’s not a “girl” because the other village sees a girl. But it would be good, I believe, if we could begin to understand why they see a girl when we see a boy, and even why Grom sees a carrot. Because, in the end, it’s common understanding of each other, and of the cloud of quantum foam that we live in, that will help us survive and thrive.

At least that’s one of the patterns that I see in the quantum foam. I invite you to join me.