Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Change: Sudden, Incomprehensible And Deadly



Today’s post is going to be a little sad. But because the sad part raises some questions that are really interesting to me, I’m going to do the post anyway. I don’t have any photos of the sad part, so you don’t have to worry about looking at the illustration that I use.



The Start

A large store went out-of-business around here a few weeks ago. That’s not too unusual and I expected the only consequence to be having to drive a little farther to buy this or that product.

That change however, the store shutting down, has had a deadly effect on some wildlife here. It’s sad, but at the same time it’s interesting to try to imagine what the wildlife must be thinking about the change.


The Location

This is a Google Maps satellite image, sort of a bird’s-eye view of a major intersection in our suburb, 111th Street at Cicero Avenue. The intersection itself is in the very lower right corner of the photograph. North is up, east is right.

I’ve added some annotations to the image to try to illustrate what I’ll be talking about.

First I’m going to describe the overall scene, then I’ll describe the change and the problem it has caused.

When this photo was taken the green rectangle at the left was a KMart store with its large parking lot to the east. Now this store has closed and the parking lot is deserted. (If you click on the photo it gets a little larger.)


Normal Traffic

One normal traffic pattern around here is to drive east on 111th Street and then make a left turn north onto Cicero. I’ve added a blue line at the bottom of the image to indicate this traffic sequence.

Sometimes the intersection gets backed up. Some drivers turn left off 111th Street and cut through the abandoned parking lot to get on Cicero at the little intersection north of the corner. I’ve added an orange line showing the path cars take when they cut through the empty parking lot. (There is a little road that connects 111th Street along the east side of the parking lot to Cicero. Now that the store is closed and the parking lot is abandoned most cars I’ve seen have ignored that little road and just cut through the empty lot.)


The Problem

For many years the parking lot was filled with cars aligned in rows and columns, and cars traveled through the parking lot slowly.

As often happens in some parking lots, large flocks of seagulls have made themselves at home on the asphalt. The seagulls, over the course of years, became accustomed to parking lot traffic. Slow moving cars traveling and parking in rows and columns.

The red arrow is the area where flocks of seagulls spend their day.

Now the traffic flow has completely and radically changed. And from the seagulls’ point of view, the change was sudden and incomprehensible—what do birds know about a store closing?

Now cars are speeding through the abandoned parking lot along diagonals that totally ignore the rows and columns the birds learned over the course of years. And the drivers, in a hurry along their shortcut, are not paying any attention to the birds.

So birds are getting hit and smashed.


Thinking About This

The birds don’t know anything about the store closing. Birds, of course, don’t even know—I guess—what a store is or what a car is.

All these seagulls know is that after years of behaving one way all of a sudden cars are behaving in a completely different way.

However that is seagulls think about cars in their seagull mind-space.

So it’s sad for the poor birds. I’m guessing that over time they will learn to avoid the south end of the parking lot entirely.

But what an interesting situation!

I mean, I wonder how much of life is like this for human beings?

There must be things happening around us in reality that we don’t understand at all, or even can’t understand. (Things as foreign to our human mind as “stores” and “parking lots” and “cars” are to a seagull’s understanding of reality.)

Seagulls can’t understand stores/parking lots/cars but nonetheless seagulls can interact with stores/parking lots/cars by making some kind of seagull mental accommodation to reality and simply learning whatever they can learn and shaping their behavior appropriately.

And for long lengths of time (many seagull generations in fact) the kinds of things seagulls can learn—for instance car-things move slowly and line up in rows and columns—function as useful seagull knowledge allowing the birds to shape their behavior to live peacefully in the parking-lot-place.

But then the store closes. An essentially trivial human event. But it is presumably incomprehensible to seagulls and suddenly everything the seagulls ever knew about car-things has become useless knowledge, or even misleading and deadly knowledge.

How much of this kind of thing happens to human beings?

There must be things happening around us in reality that we don’t understand at all, or even can’t understand. (Things as foreign to our human mind as “stores” and “parking lots” and “cars” are to a seagull’s understanding of reality.)

How many times do we get hurt or even killed because some aspect of reality completely beyond our comprehension changed in some essentially simple way that is nonetheless beyond our understanding and then we go about our normal behavior and find ourselves getting knocked about or smashed in ways that never happened to us before, or never happened to earlier generations before?

What an interesting thought!

It’s very tempting—isn’t it?—to say, well, humans are capable of abstract thought. We can make up labels for concepts that are on the fringe of our understanding and then think about those labels and create new concepts grouping them in appropriate ways so that the very scope of our thinking expands. Our ability to think abstract thoughts lets us interact with reality in a way seagulls can’t.

But is any of that true?

I mean “true” in a meaningful way!

Our very word “abstract” and our concept of “abstraction” as a process are just labels for descriptions of how we perceive our human mind to work. A seagull may have equally grandiose labels describing how the seagull mind works. The seagull is still, nonetheless, just one existent within a vast reality.

Does our thinking really give us a transcendental mechanism to see beyond the very mechanism of our self?

Or are we living within a reality as vast and as ultimately incomprehensible to us as a store-place and its parking-lot-place full of car-things are to seagulls?

Is our concept of “understanding” just a label to describe something which in a seagull we would characterize as “some kind of seagull mental accommodation to reality” that may or may not be useful?



I’m very sorry those poor birds are getting hurt. But this has given me a lot to think about!






















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