is that an elephant in the room or are we not in the same room?

I had set out to write about curiosity, that being the name of the newest book that I’ve succumbed to just bought. It’s actually called Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It by Ian Leslie.

I had read a review on Scientific American here. It pulled me right in, too, thus the quick purchase, albeit on my Kindle. Here’s the end of the article:

Like any other skill, curiosity requires cultivation, which, Leslie argues, is happening less and less. Technologies—such as computers and the search engine Google—would seem to open the world to exploration. Yet by giving users exactly what they want, these innovations end up limiting curiosity. In fact, some experts think we live during a period of “great stagnation”—a relative lack of innovation and invention. Technological advances may be paradoxically stifling inquisitiveness and creativity.

Toward the middle, the book arrives at what feels like the point Leslie has been itching to make: there is no getting around the grunt work of acquiring true understanding. He uses chess as an example. Players become masters not because they have learned any universal equation but because they have memorized hundreds of games. Those internalized narratives serve as a reference library, a simulator in which to “play out” the many possible outcomes of a game. The more comprehensive that internal database is, the more capable the player can be.

In other words, old-fashioned memorization is the real basis for skill, creativity and mastery. Because new knowledge sticks to preexisting knowledge, the more you know, the more readily you will learn new things. This point may seem tangential to curiosity. But Leslie contends that if people follow their drive to understand, they will incidentally absorb immense amounts of information and acquire the large memory banks that allow for creativity and expertise. As Leslie puts it, “Skills come from struggle.”

This had come right after I read the latest Brain Pickings newsletter about Kierkegaard on Boredom:

In this conception, boredom becomes indeed an emptiness of meaning rather than a lack of diversion. In fact, Kierkegaard likely influenced Tolstoy when the beloved Russian author, in his own existential quest for meaning, asserted that “for man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.”

Which brings me to the elephant in the title.

I am so very uncomfortable seeing people who I haven’t seen since my sister’s death, not that I’m really that comfortable with a lot of other people, either. I just don’t want the awkwardness of “do they know? Do I have to tell them? Should I tell them? Will they say anything?” There were two different women I saw this past Shabbat, both who have been away for the last 3 weeks. One of them gushed with sadness, expressing how sorry she was that they hadn’t been here, which was a fine reaction for me. The other? Well, you can guess that she was the opposite. She informed me that they had just gotten back from Israel. Afterwards, she approached my niece who was sitting with me for afternoon services, informing us how she was going through some old letters and saw an invitation that she (my niece) had designed, and wondered how did she do that?

Maybe she thought she wasn’t supposed to bring up mourning on Shabbat.

Yeah, let’s go with that.

Let’s bring in now the Indian tale of the blind men and the elephant. Noting that Wikipedia actually brings a number of different versions, I will focus on just one for now:

A Jain version of the story says that six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

A king explains to them:

All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.[2]

The ancient Jain texts often explain the concepts of anekāntvāda and syādvāda with the parable of the blind men and an elephant (Andhgajanyāyah), which addresses the manifold nature of truth.[3] This parable resolves the conflict, and is used to illustrate the principle of living in harmony with people who have different belief systems, and that truth can be stated in different ways (in Jain beliefs often said to be seven versions). This is known as the Syadvada, Anekantvada, or the theory of Manifold Predications.[2]

Two of the many references to this parable are found in Tattvarthaslokavatika of Vidyanandi (9th century) and Syādvādamanjari of Ācārya Mallisena (13th century). Mallisena uses the parable to argue that immature people deny various aspects of truth; deluded by the aspects they do understand, they deny the aspects they don’t understand. “Due to extreme delusion produced on account of a partial viewpoint, the immature deny one aspect and try to establish another. This is the maxim of the blind (men) and the elephant.”[4] Mallisena also cites the parable when noting the importance of considering all viewpoints in obtaining a full picture of reality. “It is impossible to properly understand an entity consisting of infinite properties without the method of modal description consisting of all viewpoints, since it will otherwise lead to a situation of seizing mere sprouts (i.e., a superficial, inadequate cognition), on the maxim of the blind (men) and the elephant.”[5]

To sum up, I have no idea.



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