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OT: Doubting Thomas: was "Introducing Myself"

From:Sally Caves <scaves@...>
Date:Thursday, February 17, 2005, 5:55
Thanks, Muke, for the sources!  More below:

----- Original Message -----
From: "Henrik Theiling" <theiling@...>

> Sally Caves <scaves@...> writes: >>... >> Isn't it more interesting to consider that there >> are pockets of Homo Sapiens that do feature "alternative" cognitive >> skills? >>... > It's certainly very interesting to think about that! That's why I > like science fiction a lot.
So is this science fiction? Henrik again:
> Well, yes, the stories I read are so unbelievable that it is hard to > believe it's real. However, there are many different sources. If a > hoax, it must be a huge-scale one. If not, it's truely strange. How > to check? In this case, the mere strangeness makes me think that I > can only believe it if I have seen it with my own eyes (and all other > sensory units).
I'm taking a break from the grind, here. This kind of doubt reminds me of an interesting dispute I had with a friend of mine about last fall. The conversation got around to "strange" accidents, and I happened to mention Phineas Gage. You know... the nineteenth century American foreman who was heading the construction of a railway line in New England? They were blasting through rock using dynamite and sand. You drill a hole in the rock, put in the stick of dynamite, put sand over it, and tamp it down with a tamping iron about three feet long, narrow as a man's thumb. Gage was distracted, started tamping the dynamite before the sand had been put on it. The dynamite went off and the tamping iron entered his left cheek under the cheek bone and emerged through the top of his head near the front and flew into the air. Though knocked down, Gage never lost consciousness. They took him by wagon to the nearest house where they set him in a chair on the porch. The doctors who examined him (then and years later) said that he was perfectly able to describe the accident and what had happened, and seemed, at the time, not to have suffered any damage to his intellectual faculties. (He lost the sight in his right eye.) He knew who he was, he could remember the date, he could read, count, recall current events... Before I could get to the part of the story where a "mysterious" change occurred in his personality, and about how this incident was to start serious investigation of frontal lobe accidents, how the frontal lobe governed sense of social self and the finer emotions, and how the tragedy ushered in early experimentations with leucotomies and eventually lobotomies, my friend interrupted me. "I don't believe it." Maybe because I talk a mile a minute, :) but mostly, I think, because he had extremely set opinions about brain injuries that he didn't want unsettled. "I don't believe it." He was adamant about it. I had fallen subject to an urban legend, and was foolishly credulous. He was sure it couldn't have happened. "I SAW footage of President Kennedy's assassination," he exclaimed. "No one can survive that kind of head injury." "But the bullet that killed Kennedy had a very different point of entry," I tried to say. "Doesn't matter." The whole thing was a hoax, despite the fact that there were scores of eye witnesses, medical writings and accounts of Gage's behavior at the time of the accident and later, and that Gage's skull with the hole in it is on display at the Smithsonian. (That's right, isn't it?) Now there are different opinions about how exactly Gage conducted his life after the accident, but just about everybody familiar with the incident admitted that it happened and that it is a medical milestone and a personal tragedy, and that it is truly amazing. What are the odds that a three foot piece of metal as thick as a finger and propelled by a rocket will fly through your head missing the major arteries, the areas that control autonomic functioning, the speech center, the hippocampus, emerge between the two lobes themselves, and you'll live to tell about it? About a trillion to one? This argument about the P, too, raises some interesting questions about the nature of belief. Do we have to be present at a scene to believe it? Can we trust the accounts of medical men of the mid-nineteenth century before photography was widely used to document things? Or are we to believe that everything uncommonly strange is a hoax before we are present to put our fingers in the wound itself? For me, the fact that Phineas Gage survived the accident with memory and intellect intact is about as credible as the Pirahas and their equally strange development, which may be due just as much to chance and environment. We don't need science fiction to find this world strange enough. There's a wonderful book out there called _Doubt_ by Jennifer Hecht. Doubt keeps us honest, to some degree. Doubt allows us to change. Taken to extreme, though, we can doubt that the astronauts landed on the moon, or that the earth revolves around the sun or is older than 6000 years. So I guess my question is... what fixed notions do we have about human tribal behavior, or human language and cognition that we don't want unsettled? Sally


Tristan McLeay <conlang@...>
Henrik Theiling <theiling@...>