The joys of already KNOWING

Jack wrote this in November, 2005:

Morning blogsters:

Around 1969, I was in a freshman Geology course at the University of Texas, first week of classes. The instructor was a grad student teaching assistant who began the course with an overlay of how geologists determine the age of a particular layer of deposition.

Along about the third day a kid who’d been sitting next to me raised his hand. I’d noticed him squirming from the first day, and now he just had to get whatever was bothering him off his chest.

“I’ve been trying to understand what you’re saying, but it’s confusing. How can all this be true, all those depositions being so old when the world’s only (some specified low-range number of thousands) years old. It’s all been calculated when God created the earth.”

After the chaotic eruption of laughter from forty sophisticated freshmen who knew better subsided the instructor directed his response to the now-cringing questioner.

“You can’t have it both ways. This is a Geology course. Everything you hear in this room is based on the premise that the earth is ancient beyond imagination. That the world we see around us is the product of eons of tectonic activity. Of faulting, lifting, erosion, weathering followed by more of the same.

“I’m not going to try to convince you that what you’ve said is wrong. But I’ll tell you that if you can’t accept, for the sake of discussion, the possibility that the book in front of you describes reality, you’ll never get through this course.”

The kid joined me at a table in the Union coffee shop later. He was still upset and confused by the incident, the laughter. Turned out the kid truly couldn’t wrap his mind around the concepts being discussed. He KNEW it to be otherwise at such a fundamental level that he’d have had to relax all manner of other things he KNEW and held sacred to even consider it.

So he dropped the course and never let his mind out of the cage he’d built around it.

The experience that kid had in a geology classroom isn’t too different from what all of us encounter in life. It’s all a matter of where we place the boundaries of the cage.

Within a decade of the incident the geology world was turned upside down with emergence of tectonic plate theory, and much of what he’d have learned if he’d finished the course would have been out of date.

But Tectonic Plate Theory found similar boundaries among geologists’ minds during the difficult battle for acceptance. Old department heads wrestled against it in a war as bloody as a fundamentalist preacher would have fought against the concept of an earth more than a couple of thousand years old. They’d just placed the boundaries a bit further out than the kid and whatever school teacher told him the world was young. Those old geology profs KNEW there was no such animal as continental drift. No point in discussing evidence supporting it.

Similarly, we all KNOW the numbers are random.


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