Letter to Peter Bishop on the Ocassion of His College Graduation 1982

Dear Pete,

I guess there is no way I can accuse you of not giving me enough time between graduations to come up with an inspiring letter. All the same, I have been meaning to sit down and word process you a few lines of fraternal wisdom for several weeks without finding any cosmic theme within myself around which to weave such a missive. So all you can expect from this letter is a bunch of jumbled thoughts (exquisitely typed).

One thing I have discovered in my advanced age is that there is little wisdom loose in the world. Lots of people are eager to tell you things (and they are usually erroneous), but you almost never are offered pearls of great value. Of course, on the rare occasion one comes your way, it is easy to overlook it.

The dearth of wisdom can be attributed to the scarcity of complete people. Once as a joke, I worked out a genetic model that postulated that the power of rational thought was controlled by a single gene that proved fatal if you inherited it from both parents. It could be tolerated if you only had one half of the pair.

This is not an alien idea to philosophy. Hume proved that rationally there was no basis for believing the illusions of space, time, or cause and effect. He stated that he had no reason to believe that when he stepped off a cliff he would fall down the precipice. It was equally likely that he could fall up. He hastened to add that these speculations were best made from a comfortable armchair (hence the origin of armchair philosopher) and not while actually walking on a cliff. In the compromises of the so-called real world, dependence on pure rationality can be paralyzing.

In my model, the corresponding gene for rationality was one that gave the possessor the impression of rationality. In practice, when confronted with a phenomenon such as a plague of locust, the average person will look for a reason and generally stumble fairly quickly on something that satisfies them. Perhaps it is a punishment from god, or because the moon is in Aires, or it’s a result of acid rain, or it correlates with sunspots and so must be caused by sunspots. In short, when confronted by a new phenomenon, most people seek an explanation with which to relate it to their worldview, and finding one, accept in total and close their minds to further inquiry on the subject. They think they have it all figured out, and will no doubt tell you all about it with the utmost conviction.

In contrast, the rational man lives forever in a conceptually open universe, his explanations are only hypothesis, and nothing is nailed down as certain, only accepted as the best explanation with the limited data and theory available. In a one on one struggle for survival, it is not hard to pick the winner. About the only things rational people are good for are inching toward wisdom, furthering arcane concepts like justice & goodness, and making conceptual advances in the way the universe can be viewed.

The Bishop genetic model of rationality divides the world into two types of people. Those who have two genes for the impression of rationality and those who have one rational and one impression gene. Since actual cases of lethal genes exist in nature (the best known example being sickle cell anemia), there is a basis for projecting that in any population, only 5-10% of the people will have the rational gene, and are able to engage in rational thought at least some of the time.

The biological basis of this theory is pure hokum, but I think you will find as you move through life, that a figure of 5-10% rational people is quite generous. It doesn’t matter what the group, it could be garbage men, noble prize winners, a university faculty, or a bridge club; you’re dong well if one in ten can think rationally.

The 5-10% figure has been derived independently by others, and presented as their own discovery. One friend stated that there were never more than 5% competent people in a group. That in a burning theatre, 80% would just sit there like sheep, 10% would engage in yogic contortions so they could trample themselves to death, and 10% (generally one or two people in the average burning theatre), would take a leadership role and move the crowd to safety.

I doubt that there is much personal advantage in being among the 5-10% that is either rational, competent, genuinely saintly, or able to lead. Given a limited fling on the planet, one is probably better off grooving along on ass and grass. Still, that small percentage of people do make the world interesting, do provide a bulwark against the ravages of darkness and ignorance, do pull us through times of crisis and peril.

I learned one conceptual tool in college that has stood me well through the years. It is a yardstick for evaluating the ideas and explanations that petition for my fealty and allegiance. It helps negotiate the troubled ground between macrobiotics, granola, and fruit loops as ideologies of food. It gives a sea anchor in the raging arguments between the Pentagon and the disarmament forces. It keeps the confused illusions of the universe in perspective.

In its simplest formulation: Does an explanation feed back on a closed system of thought, or is it open to modification? In a closed system of thought, for example astrology or macrobiotics, any observed phenomenon can be explained by adequate study of the rule book. The most novel cases are only peculiar intersections of rules and forces. Whereas in an open system of thought, the rules are only hypotheses and the game is to keep the theory fluid and dynamic, not to pigeonhole the data.

If I got sick, for example, the medical establishment would treat me within a rigid theoretical framework in which every possibility is explained by the dogma of medicine. If I happened to be in Indian Territory, my disease would be attributed to an imbalance of hot and cold vapors and the malevolent intersection of spirits, and their cure would differ markedly from the medical one. Macrobiotics would analyze the disease in terms of yin and yang, and try to cure me by rebalancing my intake of grains. Each of these is a closed and essentially impermeable system of thought. A contrasting system of thought for dealing with an illness would be the one now being experimented with in the holistic health movement which tries to take theory and data from many different frameworks and practices.

I don’t know how I got off on such a long rap. It is probably because it is so easy to write, and rewrite on the computer. Looking at the top of the screen, I see I am on line 42 of page 3. But I have gotten there without watching the paper inch through the typewriter.

By all means, get a computer. They are the only really good thing the industrial revolution has produced. It might be that all the awfulness of the industrial world was just the birthing pains of an information-based society, held together by charges on universes of silicon chips. Computers are so pliant and responsive. I would not say they are as good as a woman, but then hardly anything is.

Continued the next day…

I don’t know what got into me to rhapsodize so on computers. I barely logged off from doing the above and reached over to turn on the printer (to type it out) and the machine wouldn’t turn on. The service man can’t come for several days. You may have to wait until you come east and read this letter off the TV screen.

On the subject of other pearls of wisdom (or unwisdom as the case may be) I admonish you to GIVE AWAY YOUR TEAPOT! It is the other lesson I learned in college, but one which I find myself failing to practice. In part because I don’t fully understand the meaning, or the implications for my life.

Back in the olden days, before herb tea and when brown rice was only sprouting. Naomi and I used to take an hour of free yoga in the Tilden Meditation room at Cal every Tuesday at noon. The session was run by a monk who looked like a YMCA counselor from the front, but who wore a brown monk robe, motorcycle boots (he rode a very large BMW), and had a three foot long braid of hair in the back. After a few asanas, when we were all relaxed, he would subject us to a short rap, usually about auras and other things that would have earned him a barrage of pips and mildews if we had not been so blissed out by the heavy breathing while scratching our ears with our toes. One day he got into a rap about how you must give away what is valuable to you, “Give away your teapot,” he said more than a few times.

The assembled multitude did not quite rate this advice with that proffered during the Sermon on the Mount, and he must have sensed that he was loosing the audience, so he tried to relate it to our student reality. “Give away your fountain pen.” That didn’t really make it either, and from then on the raps stayed pretty much with auras.

But the seed was planted and I have thought about giving away teapots ever since. My personal translation is more toward giving away some of your skill and energy to good causes, or being generous in helping someone. Lately I have been trying to think about using film and photography for nuclear disarmament instead of making money. (Not that they have made me any money, but I do think about making money on occasion.) It does not come easily to me to give away my teapot, but somehow I feel better on the occasions that I do. The point is that you will always have a teapot when you really need it. Good ideas and acts generate more good ideas and acts, it is a bottomless reservoir.

There is a photographer whose work I admire. He does very elaborate multi-image work, building a print from many different negatives. His prints look so well thought out. At a lecture recently, he[1] showed some of the prints he did while working on the ideas that led up to one of his finished prints. They were pretty awful. But he said that you have to do all the ideas that don’t work out in order to arrive at the ones that do. In short, you have to be active; you can’t just do a few perfect things? Those only come out of a hodge-podge of imperfect activity. (How terribly unZen!)

Other advice? Don’t ever pass up a chance to find out how something works. I don’t mean the nickel and dime details, but the general sweep. Like if someone gives you a chance to watch a recording session, or spend a few days at a newspaper, or can explain how the stock market or a law court or something gets business done? You should to grab the chance. You never need most of that information, but the more of it you know, the more comfortable you can be with the way the world bumbles along.

If you should chose some aspect of business for your next life move, you should remember that capitalism is an art form.

Lot’s of people are down on computers because their only experience with them has been getting junk mail, bills, and mangled bank statements out of computers. But they are benign and neutral machines. The trouble is they have been used for the most part by the most anal compulsive and unimaginative segment of society to do junk work.

The same is true of capitalism. It has been used mostly by mean spirited people to further their most narrow and short term self interest. It has a bad legacy. Great fortunes are most often made with criminal activity, slavery, colonialism, organized crime, and so forth. This is the source of the capital. But the other side of the coin is that manipulation of capital allows the building of universities and hospitals, protection of wildlife, creation of livelihoods for displaced workers (we cannot all be dirt farmers anymore).

The challenge of the modern capitalist system is to engineer society. Capital can continue beget capital through exploitative practices. It can also plan for the way industry will integrate with cities and society, to better the quality of life, provided two-way responsibility between workers and the company, act to protect the environment and people from toxic contamination, economic collapse and so forth. That’s why I say it is an art form.

Well enough idle rapping. We will be in DC July-11-22, 1982. So that is a bad tome time for you to arrive. But please feel welcome to come east for awhile sometime in he next year.

Congratulations on graduating.


Love, John

PS- June 7, 1982. The computer man came out and replaced a blown fuse in the printer. So I will log off now and put this rambling letter on paper.

–The Silent Master


[1] Jerry Uelsman

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