Sunday 24 January 2021

Poem: Laughing at the Milky Way

by Chengde Chen *

There was a chicken, who lived his life happily

Every morning, someone opened his coop and fed him

Day by day, month by month

he believed that this was the law of the world

so he never thought of escaping

Until New Year’s Eve

he found a kitchen knife at his neck

The ‘law’ disappeared

and it was too late for regrets!


It is laughable for man to worry that the sky might fall

but not laughable for the falling sky to worry about man

The destruction of civilisation cannot be ‘known’

Only mathematics, standing aloof from the world **

can sense the storm from the ancient Milky Way

Those who have felt it should ponder deeply over it

Those who have realised it should issue a cry loudly

Be a madman, letting others laugh

Laughing is better than being oblivious

for those who are laughing are no longer sleeping!

* Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.


Keith said...

My understanding is that the chicken tale was first presented to point to the flaws of inductive reasoning. As Bertrand Russell spun the yarn, the daily feeding led the chicken to conclude that the past will forever presage the future. Until one morning, the man wrings the chicken’s neck instead, disproving the chicken’s overly confident generalization.

Or, as you couched it, Chengde, before the ‘law’ that the chicken believed in disappeared.

Your point reminded me how we live with natural ‘laws’ being either refined, or layered onto, or out-and-out replaced all the time. I refer to the sometimes incremental and other times paradigmatic changes that occur to hypotheses and theories as a routine matter, in all fields, as new knowledge, creative eureka insights, and understanding inform and refine existing ‘laws’ or lead to outright new ones. Alas, my not having learned from the chicken’s scrape over the matter of induction, I propose that’ll forever be the case.

The chicken tale warns us, in the meantime, of the risks of becoming complacent (or worse, haughty) about what we think we know. The possible consequence being metaphorically getting our own necks wrung and feathers plucked, as in concerns about the environment.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

We are on the chicken's course. Generally they say no, we are not. We solved the problems yesterday, and will solve them tomorrow. Here is why I think this is not so:

Around the beginning of the 21st Century, science in general entered a major new phase. Since then, it has two things at its disposal which it did not have before: enormous processing power, and vast amounts of data—or to put it another way, extremely large data sets (big data) which may be analysed computationally.
It is hard to overemphasise the importance of this shift. Pedro Domingos wrote, ‘If every algorithm (a set of computer instructions) suddenly stopped working, it would be the end of the world as we know it.’

The goal of such algorithms, to put it too simply, is to optimise things—which is, to make things fit. Production must fit consumption; goods and services must fit our needs and desires; foodstuffs must match our tastes and inclinations, and so on. In the process, we strive for less wastage, smaller margins of error, and faster turnover. There is no end to this tendency towards a better fit. The more data we have, the more we can tailor any number of things to our needs and desires: insurances, medicines, fashions, regulations, news, travel, and so on.

The computational analysis of big data has many proven benefits. Yet at the same time, the algorithms are interested only in those things which are included in the algorithms—while most things are excluded. Among other things, the environment. It is no coincidence that, as data proliferates, and as our processing power increases, so do our global travails. More and more—unimaginably more—is excluded from our thinking, and from the ‘thinking’ of the machines we have programmed to think on our behalf.

The philosophical theologian Paul Tillich put it radically: ‘The fundamental virtues in the ethics of a capitalist society are economic efficiency, developed to the utmost degree of ruthless activity.’ It is a form of totalitarianism which will destroy us.

JudithM said...

"Stylistically', Chengde's poem reminded me of that great master, Chuang Tzu!

docmartincohen said...

Me too!

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