Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Concerning dark rooms, black cats, peanut butter, and religion.

Oscar Wilde once said, “religion is like a blind man looking in a black room for a black cat that isn't there, and finding it.”

This idea has since been extended into the following:
  • Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat.
  • Metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn't there.
  • Theology is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn't there, and shouting "I found it!"
  • Science is like being in a dark room looking for a black cat using a flashlight.
Oscar Wilde died in 1900.  Quote Investigator claims that the origins of the four line version are unknown.  It offers a few early usages from the 1930s (

When we look around at the vastness and splendour of the Universe that surrounds us on every side, and explore the fractal complexity of the laws that govern its behaviour, we surely have to concede that reducing it to a single dark room is a bit of an over-simplification.

I have decided to explore the consequences of generalizing the four line analogy just a little, by adding more rooms and some random contents.  You, dear reader, will assume the role of the intrepid explorer.

You awake in pitch darkness, with no idea of where you are.  You feel that you are on a flat surface.  You fumble in your pockets and find your trusty cellphone.  You turn it on.  The dim light from its screen reveals that you are lying on a black, slightly spongy surface of unknown composition.  You turn on the phone's flashlight and look around.  The floor extends out into more darkness.  A few parcels of various colours are scattered about on it.

You get up and walk in one direction to try and find some point of reference, or an exit.  You reach a black wall.  Casting your light upwards, you see no ceiling.  You pick up a blue parcel lying close by and toss it upwards.  It soon collides with an unseen surface and drops back to the floor.  So there's a ceiling.  The parcel bursts as it lands.  A few water bottles tumble out of it.  You are thirsty.  You pick up one bottle and inspect it.  Nothing unusual.  You open it and sniff.  It smells OK.  You drink.  It's water, cool and refreshing.  You recap the bottle and pocket it, then move along the wall looking for an exit.

You encounter other parcels of different colours as you move along.  Curious, you rip open a green one.  It contains peanut butter sandwiches.  The bread is fresh.  You are hungry, so you try eating one.  It tastes fine.  The flavour and aroma remind you strongly of a particular brand, but your mind is on other matters.

You open a beige parcel.  It contains a fleece jacket.  You are cool, so you slip the jacket on.  It feels warm and snug.

You open a yellow parcel.  It contains surprisingly heavy yellow metallic chunks.  They look a lot like gold.  You bump a couple together.  They make a dull clunking sound and don't bounce apart much.  Maybe it is gold.  You slip them into your pockets just in case, and move on.

You open a red parcel.  It contains a variety of brightly coloured stones - red, green, blue, white.  They sparkle in the light.  You try scratching a white stone over a corner of your phone's scratch-resistant screen.  The screen scratches.  You stuff the stones into your pockets as well.  They are getting full.  And there are other yellow and red parcels lying around.  You rip holes in them and verify that they contain what looks like gold and precious stones respectively.  You pile them together in a cache.

Then you reach an opening in the wall.  Cool air flows through it, so it isn't an alcove.  You enter.  A short dark passage leads you into another dark room.  More parcels lie on the floor.  You collect a few, then go back to your cache and dump them.  You move further along the wall in the first room and find another opening.  You realize that you could get lost, and fail to find your growing cache of loot.  You open parcels of different colours.  In a white one you find string.  You tie one end to a heavy parcel in your cache, and pay out string as you move along so you won't get lost.

You enter other rooms.  Each contains parcels.  Each has openings to yet other rooms.  How big is this maze?  You check your phone and see that the battery level is dropping.  There is no phone signal where you are, although you saw some in the first room.  You go back to it and get signal again.  You sit next to your pile of loot munching some more food as you ponder your options.  How long will your phone battery last?  Will you find an exit in time?  Should you call for help?  Will whoever rescues you demand that you leave your loot behind?  Or will they demand a share?  There's surely no point in sitting on a pile of loot till your battery fails and you're left alone in darkness.

You phone a trusted friend and describe your predicament.  You describe the parcels of food and water, but you don't mention the gold or precious stones.  You tell her that you haven't yet seen a black cat.  It's a private joke.

It takes some persuading to get your friend to believe you, but eventually she does.  She asks you what she should do to help.  You ask her to visit your cellular provider.  She does.  They phone you back.  They can measure the signal strength of your phone in a few of their cell towers and work out roughly were you are by triangulation.  But someone will have to go to that location with a directional radio receiver and home in on your phone's signal.  It will take some time.

You get ready to wait for them, possibly in darkness.  You gather a number of food parcels and arrange them in a circle, then a number of water parcels and arrange them in a large X shape.  Noughts and crosses, you will be able to remember that and locate them even in the darkness.  You find some large sacks in another white parcel, and bag all of your loot so it will be easy to carry.  You put a layer of food and water parcels on top to be discreet.

You turn off the social media apps that gobble your phone's battery, and send a text asking your friend to text you rather than phone you so as to preserve battery life.  You settle down to wait in darkness.

As you wait, you wonder where you are.  Who set it all up?  What purpose does it serve?  You wonder where all the parcels came from.  There have no price tags.  Are they for free?  Or will you have to pay later?

You turn on your phone light briefly to have a closer look at some of the parcels that you have emptied.  Each type is wrapped in paper of a particular colour.  The papers are of different textures and thickness.  But all of the parcels are tied up with the same sort of white string.  It's standard parcel string.  You look more closely and see that each string is made of small fibres, probably cotton, spun together.

You turn off the light and ponder further in the darkness.  String is the common denominator across all parcel types.  It's even the same as the string that you used to mark your trail.  Maybe the string came first, and then through some mathematical process gave rise to wrapping paper and the contents of the parcels over time.  You feel a new theory coming on.  Maybe it will lead to a new publication, or perhaps several.  You could be famous.  But only if you get out alive.

As you wait in the darkness you start to hear a low, distant rumbling noise.  It gradually gets closer and louder.  It is rhythmic, with a period of about four seconds.  It sounds like a cat purring, only louder, lower, and slower.  It gets to sound quite close.  What could it be?

You do a quick web search and find that the cougar is the largest cat that purrs.  The page tells you that males weigh up to 80 kilograms, and that they can take down an ungulate weighing up to 500kg.  You risk a short YouTube clip of a purring cougar, and it sounds pretty much like what you're hearing.  Is the animal purring because it's lonely and has now found company, or because it's hungry and has now found lunch?  Or maybe it's just a sound recording, and observers are watching you through infra-red cameras, laughing up their sleeves.  A bead of sweat tickles its way down your neck.

You turn on your torch lamp and point it to where the purring sound is coming from.  It sounds really close, but you see nothing.  If there's anything there, it must be black.  Can cougars be black?  A web search returns divided opinions.  In Choctaw folklore a black cougar signifies death.  Many folk have claimed to see them, but there is no hard evidence.  Cat experts claim that folk who made these reports probably saw melanistic margays or ocelots.  These weigh up to 4kg and 18kg respectively, not nearly so big and scary.  But do they have deep purrs?  And where were the cat experts when the sightings were made?  On location, or back home in their comfortable armchairs?

You settle down in the darkness to wait for the rescue team to come, or for your phone battery to die, or whatever else might happen.  You console yourself with the thought that you still haven't seen a black cat.  But you croak “nice kitty” out loud a couple of times.  Just in case.