The meaning of the word few

As a child I was interested in the word few. I was not interested in figuring out exactly what it meant; instead I was interested in understanding its potential. What could it mean? I enjoyed playing with modifiers such as “quite a few” which seems to mean the opposite of its intended meaning: the word few supposedly comes from the PIE pau- and from there the word paucity derives. It means a small but numerous number. It means “many, yet not many” to put it without delicacy. “Quite a few” seems to increase the “numerousness” of the number involved in few, but maybe it only emphasizes the importance that it is not only one or two…?

I remember thinking about this, and smiling. This word made me happy. When I came to college, however, I learned from my friends that the word few meant exactly “three.” I did try to argue that the word was meant to not be exact, but there was a certain force in the precise claim, and no-one listened to me. Interestingly, the word few is related to puerile. (the etymology is coming from My arguments might have sounded immature to the ears of my friends. What use is a word if we don’t know exactly what it means? And if I don’t know exactly what it means, and this other person says he does, why should they listen to me?

My reaction was suppressed anger. By the time I was in college I was used to this sort of thing. I had a certain joy when people used a turn of phrase or said things that had a lot of possibility (especially when the speaker was a mathematician), and it seemed everyone else frowned on this joy. Maybe my feeling was stupid, or immature, or even evil, but I buried the determination to make the argument for a less determined definition of few, and many other things, in the face of everyone who thought they knew so much. It felt like such a small, trivial thing. But it was one of the last things I enjoyed about language at Earlham, where writing was paramount. Why couldn’t we have at least one vague word, a word about not knowing the exact number of things, but still being able to to communicate the information that it was more than two, yet not very many. Wasn’t that something we ran into all the time? Or were we supposed to count everything before we spoke? My reaction was far from laziness. I perceived this difference in my ideas, really in my temperament—what made me happy, as something I was going to struggle with my whole life, and correctly so.

Of course the word few does not at all mean “three.” Even though I did look it up at the time, (and the dictionary I consulted did say the word few meant exactly three, much to my dismay), I have been to several other sources years later. And written a book defending vague language, to a mathematical audience. The struggle continues… but at least I’ve got my finger on the problem now.

Merry Happy

Astronomers believe the universe is 14 billion years old. There are over 7 billion people in the world. That means it takes two years for the human race to have as much time being conscious as the entire span of time for the universe to be born and age until now. The idea that our minds can’t have an effect on reality is confirmably false. Just think what we might be capable of as a human family if we trained everyone at least to believe in the power of their consciousness. Maybe the earth is not the center of the universe, but what we are capable of can reach the farthest corners of space. These two days of kindness and joy, just think how much it would mean if it reached everyone on Earth. Peace.

words are footsteps
we are mistaken to believe they happen first in the head
words happen in our feet
what made us put our foot there?
If there were a way to walk up to the heart or head with words
It would have already been invented
by the people stepping on our heads,
telling us our words are there.

Directness and Indirectness

“Even in our most intellectual conceptions,” Peirce wrote, “the more we strive to be precise, the more unattainable precision seems.”

(PW 295) as quoted in Chiasson, P. (2001). Peirce’s Logic of Vagueness. In M. Bergman & J. Queiroz (Eds.), The Commens Encyclopedia: The Digital Encyclopedia of Peirce Studies. New Edition.

“our knowledge is never absolute but always swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and indeterminacy.” (Peirce, PW 356)

Science (which has become too general and ambitious a word) is usually regarded with directly conveying the facts of the world. An interesting cross-section of scientific facts is the belief that “growth” of the brain is always good. (a belief that is strangely shared with corporate models of economics)

The NGF or “Nerve Growth Factor” is a chemical found in the brain. It was isolated and recognized as important for the brain to “develop” and survive almost 70 years ago. In 2006, NGF levels were found to be heightened at the beginning of a romantic relationship.

Emanuele, Enzo; Politi, Pierluigi; Bianchi, Marika; Minoretti, Piercarlo; Bertona, Marco; Geroldi, Diego (2006-04-01). “Raised plasma nerve growth factor levels associated with early-stage romantic love”. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 31 (3): 288–94. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2005.09.002. ISSN0306-4530. PMID16289361. S2CID18497668.

The communication with people interested in science is usually that brain development is caused by the birth of neurons, or nerve cells. This birth is called Neurogenesis. Along with Neurogenesis, brain development is associated with the development of connections between neurons that can carry messages that are found to be both chemical and electrical. The more cells and the more connections between cells, the more brain development. And brain development is good.

Unfortunately, for example, you could develop certain neural pathways that cause you to behave in “bad” ways, such as those neurons and connections involved in becoming an alcoholic or a kleptomaniac. When this happens, the “good” thing to do is to lose cells and connections, so that your brain does not compel you to behave in these bad ways. In other words, you need to destroy some of what is normally termed “brain development”. This means that some kinds of brain development are good and some kinds of brain development are not good.

The point is that “Science” (once again, an overly ambitious word for anyone really interested in science) is written rather indirectly when the writers suggest we should regard brain development as good. How indirect is this suggestion? Well, seeing as how all good and bad behaviors could conceivably be brain development, the suggestion that brain development is “good” is completely unhelpful. Brain development has no bearing on what is good or bad, because all good and bad behaviors are brain developments.

Of course, we could say that all good people invariably have well-developed brains, and all generally bad people invariably have ill-developed brains. Unfortunately, we are left to figure out what a good person or a bad person is before we can figure out if their brains are well developed or not. This makes the study of brain development secondary to ethics, and is certainly not something a brain scientist would want to suggest.

There are growing groups of people who prefer to speak and think magically because they think it is more “direct”. The arguments for why this is not the case are already widely repeated, often in shameful and shaming ways.

The way that these magical-minded groups may be defended is to look at whether the phenomenon of “love” is more directly referred to with magical kinds of terms, rather than referred to as something that stimulates brain development (since brain development was found to be lacking in directness).

“Some say love, it is a river
That drowns the tender reed.
Some say love, it is a razor
That leaves the soul to bleed.
Some say love, it is a hunger,
An endless, aching need.
I say love, it is a flower,
And you, its only seed.

It’s the heart afraid of breaking
That never learns to dance.
It’s the dream afraid of waking
That never takes the chance.
It’s the one who won’t be taken
Who cannot seem to give,
And the soul afraid of dying
That never learns to live.

When the night has been too lonely,
And the road has been too long,
And you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong,
Just remember, in the winter,
Far beneath the bitter snow,
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love,
In the spring, becomes the rose.”

やさしさを 押し流す
愛 それは川
魂を 切り裂く
愛 それはナイフ
とめどない 渇きが
愛だと いうけれど
愛は花 生命の花
きみは その種子挫けるのを 恐れて
躍らない きみのこころ
醒めるのを 恐れて
チャンス逃す きみの夢
奪われるのが 嫌さに
与えない こころ
死ぬのを 恐れて
生きることが 出来ない長い夜 ただひとり
遠い道 ただひとり
愛なんて 来やしない
そう おもうときには
思いだしてごらん 冬
雪に 埋もれていても
種子は春 おひさまの
愛で 花ひらく

Starspin and the Missing Observer

Tycho Brahe used mathematical and scientific instruments, some of them newly invented, to correct ancient astronomical measurements. But his main tool was an aura of faithful observation. He thought he could explain the movements of the stars in an objective way, and that was his rhetorical position from which he made his observations. It is a rhetorical position, because there is no scientific basis for believing our observations are objective, no matter how mathematical they are, unless the earth is an immovable point in the center of the universe. If the earth is spinning and in motion, until we completely understand how it is moving, we wont understand our own observations. I am merely referring to Einstein’s theory of relativity: there are no unmoving points of observation, and so all of our observations are relative. If we understand the movement of the Earth (or a satellite like the moon) completely, then we can mathematically compensate for that motion to obtain objective measurements. How are we going to completely understand the movement of the Earth? By recording its movement from the point of view of the stars, of course. And how to we know what the point of view of the stars is? by recording their movements from the vantage points available to us: the Earth. You can see the circularity here. We can’t record the movement of the Earth without understanding the movement of the stars, and we can’t record the movement of the stars without understanding the movement of the Earth. Unfortunately, without records of either the Earth or the stars to begin with, we can only make guesses of understanding, and see how they match up with our faulty observations and records.

Where does that leave the shift from an Earth-centered universe a solar-system that moves in a universe with no center? It leaves us knowing less than we knew in Aristotle’s time. We can fly into space and make some impromptu observations of the earth spinning, but how do we know it isn’t us that is spinning so that the stars are more still, making the earth appear to spin? We would have to know how to be perfectly still in space to know how things are moving, but we can only know that relative to other things like stars or planets, so we don’t even know if one day we will shift back to an earth-centered model of the universe.

The usual argument scientists make against this type of reasoning is to make things more complex, as though that will wash away these doubts. It doesn’t really do that except rhetorically. It must be admitted, at least until we have found a point in the universe that doesn’t move, that the modern scientific models of the universe are based ultimately on rhetoric, whether it is a rhetorical air of faithfully measuring things, the rhetorical air of using mathematical symbols and formulas instead of words, or the rhetorical air of claiming that to know more is to have a more important opinion than others, so that a simple-minded analysis like mine is unimportant.

All these postures are rhetorical in foundation and nature, and so there is not much reason to draw a stark line between people who believe this or that thing, and use this as a cause of belittling, hating and shaming people (this runs the spectrum of issues such as anti-vax, flat-earthers, or whatever else). Scientific ideas are just ideas, including the our geometric or numerical ideas of space and time, and our ideas of logical reasoning, which are also fundamentally rhetorical. When Bernie Sanders says something in the order of poverty being a contradiction in the richest country in the world, he is mainly referring to a failure of Americans to think rhetorically. Instead the way to persuade people is to make logical claims, or so we believe nowadays, and this is a deep and purposefully fostered flaw in the political process in the USA. In this, the scientific community and their rhetorical posturing does us a disservice.

I am extremely fond of Borges talking about the attitude of Argentinians on literature, and his comparison with the corresponding attitudes in the USA. According to Borges, Argentinians tend to think a book that won a literature award might still be a good book, in spite of the award. Of course, this attitude is quite out of the question in the USA, where everything needs official publication, awards and certifications, and certifications of certifications, that let other people tell us who to trust and who to listen to. This Argentinian attitude towards books (and ideas) is basic to a society that is not thought-controlled.

tampering with the universe

the mosquito
With only the tiniest scrap of love
makes so much life
so much pain, hunger yes
but life, free life on the wind
Because we all need a whining reminder of freedom
For their resilience I am grateful

And the cockroach
Who carries on no matter what
And carries on well, preserver of life
Persistence in the ordeal of life, the sufferer
Because we are all sufferers
For their will I am grateful

And the spider
Who understands power better than any
The fierce trapper, the relentless
She who knows the ways of extracting our very life essence
She can teach us
She is not finished teaching us
For her wisdom I am grateful

The worm
Who’s blindness is a gift in the darkness
Who can breath with his very skin
Where there is no air, only earth
The worm is the body incarnate
Because our bodies are a gift
For their bodies I am grateful

The virus
The virus is the word itself
How is that so you ask?
Ask the virus, and it will point you to how it does things
Because it spreads like fire
And causes unrest, dis-ease, unsatisfaction
It is because the word spreads that it can shape the world
Sperm is a virus, did you not know?
Without the virus we would not be awake at all, not even to dream
Neolibralism was a dream, and the virus shook us, will we wake?
It is because of the virus we can do good, we are goaded awake
For this awakening, I am grateful

These are hardest to love, if you see with ignorance
With knowledge it is easy
Who are you to say what is evil, who should die?
Do you give as much as the virus, the worm, the cockroach, the mosquito or the spider?


definition: belief that the widest variety of sex practices, including the identity of partners, which affects its practice, is an untrammeled good. Like insects, anything goes, genital hooks that hook into the insect flesh during the act. Consumption of ones partner. Levels of power between partners, such as between a Queen and a Drone in bees. An insecto-sexual thinks that the widest variety of rules concerning sexual ethics (even contradictory rules) is an untrammeled good.

whisper, my young truth

This poem a shorn sheep,
with nothing to do but grow hair,
and the shepherd tending her clouds,
enough to make you yawn.
Such a tired, old metaphor.
Maybe the sound of pan-pipes will soothe the seeker of news.

(But here’s the skinny: the Shepherd in the sky has a glass ceiling, see?
Name’s Pan and he’s the god of shepherds
I expect the Shepherd don’t like him much
Makes fun of his goat head and calls him names like “devil”
Trying to overthrow him maybe, become the God of All, see?
Small wonder we sheep are deciding to overthrow the Shepherd now
But Pan ain’t the top man, and there's no bottom to this spiral neither.)

The hooded Lady walks into stony night.
Shifting between tree shadow and long slivers of moonlight,
Like long shining drops of rain she walks,
Into that stony night between
liquid light and shadow.

To follow her with steps, or eyes, or thought:
There is no greater danger, no act more wrought.

by Andrew Nightingale

On Space, Emptiness and Nothing

It is a common argument strategy to say that inclusivity and synthetic thinking isn’t very helpful. Often thinkers favor analysis, even if it is less correct, because it is more useful. To counter, it is good to consider how scientists postulate space. Space includes a notion of distance similar (although slightly different) to Euclidean Geometry (and very dissimilar from many other mathematical definitions of distance). If space really were nothing at all, you wouldn’t be able to traverse space. If space didn’t include this idea of distance, the universe wouldn’t hang together. Trying to traverse space without a law of distance, and many other laws sometimes called “global constants” by scientists, such as the speed of light (which supersedes the law of distance) then traversing it would involve traversing nonsense, insanity, oblivion, Nirvana or some other of the hard to define or undefinables.

The notion of space for the physicist is more similar to the notion of emptiness than to nothing at all, because emptiness recognizes or includes a container. The container is the global constants, and is not nothing. This is how Zen Buddhism avoids Nihilism.

You may try to say that noticing this basic inclusivity of the universe is not helpful, but it is of utmost importance for there to be an emptiness to inhabit and for the universe to tie itself together. Understanding how the stars and we and plants and rocks and love and thoughts are tied together is a very good thing, and rivals the analysis that separates us from food, or fuel for a fire. I would even argue that understanding the fabric of the universe, our container, is better than separating yourself from a fire. Try at your own risk though.

I will end with a summary of a story from the Dhamma I tell my daughters often.

The story of the Monk who looked for Space, adapted from the Dhamma for children

Once upon a time there was a monk who wanted to know where Space was

So he meditated and meditated and meditated, until his mind reached the angels.

He asked the angles, “Oh Angels, where is Space?”

The angels replied “We don’t know, but if you meditate longer, you will reach even higher angels, they might know.”

So the monk meditated and meditated and meditated, and his beard grew longer and longer and grey as he sat still, until he saw the higher angels.

The monk asked the higher angels “Oh high Angels, where is space?”

And the High Angels replied, “We don’t know, but if you meditate longer you will reach the Highest Angels, maybe they will know”

So the monk meditated and meditated, and his beard grew down to his feet and grew white as he mediated, until he saw the Highest Angels.

The monk asked the Highest Angels, “Oh Highest Angels, where is Space?”

And the Highest Angels replied, “We don’t know, but if you meditate even longer you will reach Brahma, the Highest of the Highest, creator of all the worlds. He will know.”

So, again, the monk meditated and meditated, and his hair began to fall out and his skin sagged from his bones and grew spots as he sat meditating, until he reached Brahma.

The monk asked Brahma, “Oh Brahma, Highest of the Highest, Creator of all the worlds, where is space?”

And Brahma replied “I am Brahma! Highest of the Highest, Creator of all the worlds!”

And for some this would be enough, but this monk persisted.

The monk said “Yes, and… where is space?”

Brahma realized the monk would not go away, so he took him to the side away from his Choir of Angels and said,

“Look, don’t tell anyone, but I don’t know where Space is. You are asking a dangerous question. If you must know, go ask the Buddha, but go at your own risk, for you go beyond my domain.” Said the Brahma, Highest of the High, Creator of all the Worlds.

And so, the monk, stood up from his meditation and walked, careful not to fall as he was very old now. He walked very slowly and it was very hard, but luckily for him, The Buddha was living then, and was residing in a town nearby.

He reached the Living Buddha, sat to one side respectfully, and asked his question.

“Oh Buddha, The Well-Gone, where is Space?”

And the Buddha gave his answer simply

“It is good you came to me, for no-one can answer this question except one who has finished the Noble Eightfold Path. And it is because Space can only be found in the mind of the Saint, one you has followed the Way, gone to the end of the world with his mind. For he has found Space, and it is in his mind.”

Then the Buddha, saying nothing at all, imparted this knowledge to the monk, who attained Enlightenment at that very moment. The monk lived happily from then on, knowing the supreme bliss, until his death and beyond.