It’s a little known fact – probably because it isn’t one, but that needn’t delay us here – that we’ve frequently been visited by creatures from outer space. Moreover, we’ve all seen them. But they’re extremely shy. And so whenever they see us seeing them, they shoot us with a forget-me ray, and sure enough we forget.
Normally I use this in my critical thinking classes as an example of a non-falsifiable hypothesis. But here I have something very different in mind, to which end I want to claim that, not unlike Joseph Smith, I’ve come across the notes these aliens left behind. But unlike Smith, bless his cotton socks, I don’t claim the aliens returned to retrieve them. On the contrary, I have them right here on my desk, and I’m more than happy to share them with anyone who cares to drop by.
The difficulty, of course, has been translation. But the task was made less formidable by the aliens having done us the courtesy of annotating their observations with very detailed drawings. Could I be mistaken in some or even all of what I conjecture below? Of course I could. That’s why I welcome, indeed I encourage, any and all alternative readings of these drawings and these notes.
So let this be a joint project. As far as I’m concerned – and I hope this is true of all my labours – it’s not about my getting it right. It’s about it having been got right, regardless of by whom.
What the aliens did is precisely what we’ve done in trying to understand our world. They tagged all the planet’s creatures, large and small, and then induced the kind of creature to which each belongs, not from its configurational phenotype but from its behaviour. That’s how they hypothesized – quite rightly as it happens – that the Great Dane and the Chihuahua are both dogs. Why? Because they both have doggie hearts. And so on.
But they also noticed that there were about seven and a half billion organisms on the planet who seem to respond to things which, for all the aliens’ efforts, couldn’t be physically observed in their environment. These organisms didn’t look any more alike than do Great Danes and Chihuahuas. But once again, kinds are individuated and identified by the behaviour peculiar to them. And so they decided to call these creatures (what I’ve presumed to translate into our own language as) ‘homo sapiens’, the ‘sapiens’ referring not so much to thinking – after all, dogs do that too – but rather to this predilection to respond to things that can’t be physically observed in the environment.
As a case in point, consider the 49th Parallel. A river or fence the aliens could understand. So can dogs. But along most of the 49th Parallel there’s neither. Why, the aliens asked, do other fauna drift back and forth with the alacrity of the weather, but people don’t, save at what seem to be physically arbitrary crossing points?
The answer, the aliens decided, is the same we’d proffer to the question. Like all other organisms, we compete for resources. But unlike most other organisms, we’ve learned that unbridled competition, i.e. actually fighting over them, depletes the resources over which we’re competing. So instead we’ve hit upon the pareto-superior solution of negotiating and agreeing on boundaries. Whatever’s on this side of it, we agree, will be mine, whatever’s on that side of it will be yours. Thus what makes the 49th Parallel as real to us as a river or a fence is nothing more than our being motivated to jointly think so.
If you think about it – though it might be best not to – this is a brilliant adaptation. Imagine how much less red in tooth and claw nature would be if other species had figured this out too.
Well, maybe not. Less red perhaps, but since the competitor that otherwise would’ve been killed survives to consume resources it otherwise wouldn’t, there’d be mass starvations. And, of course, sub-optimal reproduction.
I suspect that something like this is what the Nazis had in mind. They got the idea from Herbert Spencer. If the Jews were fit to survive they would have. That they didn’t just proves that they weren’t. There’s something to be said for tautologies like this. Though for the life of me I can’t think what. But I digress.
Let’s look at a few more examples. In some jurisdictions – jurisdictions being themselves among these physically unobservable barriers – a male can have sex with a fourteen year old but not with one fourteen less one second. It might be argued that though the difference isn’t observable in the young woman, the passage of time is. But in that sense of observable so is the distance from the 49th Parallel to the Equator. So by unobservable must be meant something more akin to negotiable. The 49th Parallel was negotiated, as was the so-called age of consent.
But that just pushes the mystery back onto what counts as negotiation. That the age of permissible sex, whether consensual or not, was decided rather than discovered is evidenced by its varying from one jurisdiction to another. But what about the boundaries we’ve constructed between what we call the races?
By this I’m not asking what motivates our erecting barriers between the races. We all understand that well enough, as can the aliens. Rather I’m asking, on their behalf and ours, how we decide what counts as being Black, or Jewish, or what have you. To say we negotiated how much pigmentation one has to have to be Black, or how thick her lips need to be, seems just, well, false. And yet we all seem to agree on who’s black and who isn’t. Even the concept of ‘passing’ presupposes we think there’s a fact of the matter about which one is dissimulating.
So how do we decide someone’s race? Well, skin colour and facial characteristics if they’re pronounced enough. But if they’re not we resort to other tells. Such as? Such as the way one speaks, how he’s dressed, even his posture. But what’s interesting about colour and accent and dress and posture is that in themselves they’re utterly uninteresting to us. What’s interesting to us is what they tell us about him, namely his race. But what’s interesting to me – and to the aliens on whose behalf I’m engaged in this inquiry – is that these tells are merely evidential, not criterial. That is, we say that if it looks like a pig, sounds like a pig, and smells like a pig, it’s a pig, dammit. But whereas that’s true of being a pig, it’s not true of being Black or Indigenous or Jewish. In fact, we acknowledge that one can even be mistaken about his own race. So the question is, what kind of fact of the matter could it be that one is Black notwithstanding that neither he nor anyone else can know it?
The only thing I can think of is that what makes you Black or Jewish or whatever, is something about your history. You’re Black just in case one of your ancestors was Black. Or in the case of being Jewish, just in case your mother, and hers, and hers, and so on, were Jewish. And the way this avoids begging the question is that at some point there’s been some kind of (what Saul Kripke would call a) baptismal event. This view is buttressed, I suspect, by the fact that if someone had no idea about these histories, she would not believe there’s the kind of fact of the matter we’re investigating.
I’m not sure this is right. But it seems the aliens thought it might be. Because in addition to observing that we respond to things that can’t be physically observed in the environment, they also hypothesized we respond to events that can’t be observed because they never happened. For example, since the aliens have been observing us for thousands of years, they’re in a privileged position to know that there never was a covenant struck between a man named Abraham and a God named Yahweh. How, then, can there be Jews? Because, they conjectured, we don’t just knowingly negotiate barriers like the 49th Parallel. We unknowingly negotiate our collective memories.
Perhaps that explains the last line in their notes, which reads, if I have the translation right, “Man remains a mystery to us in largest measure because he remains a mystery to himself!”