Thursday, May 24, 2012

assumptions

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Funny, wonderful, upsetting ... maybe that's some of what it's like to have a well-seated assumption called out and seen in a new light. It does make you wonder a bit why assumption was a requirement in the first place, but I guess everyone copes the best they can.

Yesterday, it was a small matter, perhaps, but in its small way, it caught me with my pants down:

In some recess of my mind, the Battle of Thermopylae had rested as a nugget of military heroism -- a band of 300 Spartans who had remained as a rearguard while their Greek companions escaped a sure defeat at the hands of something like 100,000 to 300,000 Persians in 480 BC. The Spartans perished to a man, but the heroic tale began almost immediately after the battle ... a small band of men sacrificed themselves so that others might live... a touchstone for anyone ... sacrifice and valor despite sure defeat. Some things are more important than our own lives and yet our own lives (and the fear of death) are vastly important.

Anyway, there it sat in my mind, an abbreviated version of an event -- summed up in my mind as an example to be referred to. It was an assumption of no enormous import and yet careless as some latter-day high school student who asserts without fear of contradiction that "the American Civil War was fought in order to abolish slavery."

Yesterday, on TV, there was some historian talking about Thermopylae and saying that, yes, the Battle of Thermopylae had very important ramifications for the history of democracy, but let's get it straight: The valor and sacrifice of the 300 Spartans was not just a matter of 300 men taking on the vastly superior horde ... besides the 300 Spartans, there were 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and perhaps a few hundred others. So ... although the Spartans got the good press (in my mind as elsewhere), they were far from being alone in valorous effort. True, the story does not lose its David-and-Goliath tenor -- even 1,500 men against 100,000 to 300,000 is pretty impressive -- but giving the Spartans front-row billing is a bit over the top.

No one, perhaps, gives a shit about an event in the dark recesses of time. That was then, this is now ... and I've got better things to think about. But that event calls up in my mind the function and usefulness of my assumptions, my shortcut references whose applicability reduces the clutter and allows me to rest and avoid mistakes and, perhaps, gain social status. It's stuff I "know" and am content to know ... hell, I can't know everything about everything, right?

But if I can't know everything about everything, where do I get off knowing something about anything? How accurate are the assumptions that feather 'my' nest?

This train of thought does not incline me to lie down in a passive goo of submissiveness. Assumptions are OK ... but it does strike me as sensible to be a little humble: What I don't know is vastly larger than what I do and even when I do know something, the likelihood that I've got it right -- accurate and complete -- is pretty damned small.

Assumption: Spiritual life is about finding the "better angels of our nature," some peace. Nice work if you can get it, but beware of the assumption that it's true ... or even a very peaceful endeavor.

Assumption: Gravity glues us all to this earth, death is the end, the sun comes up in the East, chocolate is to die for, killing is a damnation, wisdom is wise, intelligence is a blessing, ignorance is a curse ....

Nothing wrong with assumptions -- they may be entirely, empirically true. But calling them true is extra. Don't people just use what is true and leave 'the truth' to fools? If there's a mistake, correct it ... what other choice is there?

What would things be like without assumptions? Or with them either, for that matter?
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