Saturday, August 07, 2010

Can we outsmart nature?

Canada's National Post has many columnists who deal in the realm of ideas. Despite often disagreeing with many of the NP's thought merchants, I read them all.

Today this column by George Jonas caught my eye:

In writing about the decision of the Cordoba Initiative to build an Islamic cultural centre, including a mosque, two blocks from 'ground zero' (site of the 9/11 attack in 2001) in New York City, Jonas concludes that, regardless of the current controversy*, they must build the mosque and we must allow it to be built.

* Controversy:

Jonas cites 'an old fable' as the reason why:

A sage on the riverbank rescues a scorpion that has fallen into the water. When the sage pulls it out, the scorpion twists to sting him and falls back into the river. The sage rescues it again, and the same thing happens.

The sage is about to rescue the drowning arthropod for the third time, when a disciple stops him. "Master," he says, "teach me. Are you no wiser than the scorpion to keep making the same mistake over and over again?"

"A scorpion must sting because it's a scorpion," comes the reply. "I must save it, because I'm a sage. Nobody's wiser than his nature."

Versions of the 'Scorpion and the Sage' are commonly quoted by those into transcendental meditation. Differences in the various versions tend to be trivial but the endings can create significant nuances. For example, here are three other endings:
  1. "It is the scorpion's nature to sting, but it is my nature to save."
  2. "It is the scorpion's nature to sting, and it is my nature to be helpful to all beings. If the scorpion keeps its nature even in the face of death, why should I give up my compassionate nature in the face of his sting?"
  3. "My friend, just because it is the scorpion's nature to sting, that does not change my nature to save."

In the context of the fable, I interpret 'nature' to be one's essential characteristics, qualities, and core beliefs.

While each ending has something to recommend it, I prefer the one cited by Jonas:

  • "A scorpion must sting because it's a scorpion," comes the reply. "I must save it, because I'm a sage. Nobody's wiser than his nature."

It's the last bit that gets me: "Nobody's wiser than his nature." Wiser interjects intellect, intelligence, and judgement into the equation.

Jonas seems to be saying that the we and they in the mosque issue, indeed all of us, are hard-wired to behave in a certain way (our nature). Even if objective analysis shows otherwise, all concerned will behave in accord with their natures.

Is this what he meant and is it true?

  • We cannot change our nature and are prisoners to it.
  • Our qualities* will always trump our intellectual findings. (*compassion and empathy vs. indifference and hatred)
  • Our core beliefs (e.g., the weakest among us deserve respect and help, not disdain) overpower critical analysis.
  • Emotions not only influence our thinking but rule our objective thoughts.
  • Our hard-wired nature dominates our ability to reason.

Does "Nobody's wiser than his nature" seem a truism that holds for most, if not all, major decisions made in life? Are personal characteristics, emotions, core beliefs always paramount when we make important decisions, regardless of what our intellectual, objective assessment determines?

Something to think about....

Update: Testing America's tolerance (Rex Murphy, National Post, 14 Aug. 2010)

1 comment:

  1. Hoopoe10:42 AM

    Canuck on the Run says..."something to think about".
    This blog makes me think of Dan Ariely's book "The Upside of Irrationality - the unexpected benefits of defying logic at work and at home."


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