At the end of the 1960s, and the mystical hippie dawning of the Aquarius age, we were all Still searching for meaning.
The big four philosophers when I was 18 were Hesse, Vonnegut, Brautigan and Tolkien.
Of course I read other influential writers, but at the time I really believed everything I needed to know about being a decent human being was in the works of those four, though it took me another 50 years to really begin to understand why.
There was another influential book I encountered.
In the course of exploring the world I came upon the I Ching. inevitably. It had a great deal of credibility amongst the hippies of my generation. Of course I looked into it. I still have, in my lock-up in New Zealand, a beautiful translation from Chinese through German to English, of the I Ching by Richard Wilhelm.
Yarrow sticks were hard to come by where I grew up, but I was a numismatist, and had in my collection several of those fascinating old Chinese coins with square holes. It seemed appropriate to use them. Having designated which side was heads and which was tails, I had a culturally acceptable method of obtaining a randomly generated hexagram, in accordance with the instructions accompanying the book.
My youthful, hopeful self was quite surprised to find how seemingly accurate and appropriate was the advice I gleaned from the wise words of the Tao. The last remnants of my Roman Catholic superstition we’re slowly fading at the time (now only the guilt remains) and I could possibly have easily fallen into the woo mentally of believing some spiritual power, something beyond myself, was guiding me, through the words of the book.
But I read something – I don’t recall exactly where – some scientific article, perhaps, that said our brains were hard-wired to look for patterns. We look for visual patterns, such as potentially threatening animal or human shapes hiding in the trees, and we look for patterns of events and try to make some sense, often wrong, of the coincidences and causality.
The evolutionary advantage of this pattern recognition behaviour is in the significance of the value of the false positive over the false negative.
If I see what looks like a lion lurking in the bushes, and run, the likelihood of staying alive is increased, whether it is a real or imagined lion. If I decide it’s a trick of the light, and ignore it, my chances of survival are decreased if I am wrong.
The same principle applies if we recognise a pattern of events that seem to coincide. Should it rain enough times after we ask nature politely for a shower to water the crop, we may come to believe that asking causes rain.
The downside of this, is that as there is, or was, an evolutionary advantage to being superstitious. We suffered from pareidolia. It became an affliction. We came to see those shapes and faces in the bark of trees, as beings, and ascribed to them powers and motives. We recognised patterns of events, some like the celestial movements, or the seasons, quite real. Then some smart arse recognised the patterns of our own behaviour, saw an opportunity for power and put himself forward as an intermediary between the common people and the spiritual world. And we got religion.
But I digress. I was speaking of the I Ching. I recognised that my brain was looking for patterns in the events of my own life. I was taking the words from an ancient book written in Chinese, translate first to German then to English, and gleaning valuable meaning from them. But this was not superstition. The advice the book was giving me was good. Why? Because it was written in such a way that it was inevitable that the reader would apply the general advice in such a way that it would most benefit him. Because the Tau was the way of the upright, it had to be good advice. For a few formative years the I Ching helped me make decisions that brought me to where I am now. I have few regrets.
These musings were inspired by coming upon this following little piece in one of the philosophical emails that turn up in my in-box from time to time.
After a few more hours swimming up and down the Bribie Island pool, I may have more to write on the subject.
The following is borrowed from Psychology Today.