We're All In This Together

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Hi, …, hi, …, uh, … All?

Hmmm, "All" does sound a bit impersonal. It does its job, there’s no arguing against that; inclusivity is the beat of its drum, so much so that perhaps it would be better written with arms reaching out in welcome embrace, “ —A—“  (I know, I know. “lAl”, el-ay-el, but you'll just have to pretend / squint).

Of course, when you use “All” to address a group, there is an assumed boundary defining its limits. This is no more than our mathematical, pigeon-holing brain taking an undefined amount and assigning it character. Mathematical, because what we do every day, assessing and handling the world in bite-size chunks, is what Set Theory formally does to the abstract entities that give us the building blocks of Number Theory and the whole of mathematics as we know it. Without this foundation of logic, we can’t even say 1=1, and if you want to know more about why that is so, then Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell’s 3-volume Principia Mathematica will eventually nail it for you. However, a more concise description can be found in several other, more digestible publications. One of my favourite, probably just for the title alone, is Keith Devlin’s “The Joy of Sets”, but I’m easily humoured by book titles, such as, Peter Occhiogrosso’s “The Joy of Sects”.


Along his path to discovering one-equals-one, Bertrand Russell stumbled over the interesting Russell-Zermelo Paradox that can be translated something along the lines, 

“Some families are called Darwin, and other families have different surnames. Because there are so many surnames, randomly asking strangers their name and actually encountering a Darwin is rare. So, for the purposes of this example, finding a Darwin is a surprise, and not finding one a Darwin is expected. Now, let’s have a reunion party and get all the ‘surprises’ together in one marquee, and all the ‘expecteds’ in another marquee.

Walking into the expecteds marquee and speaking with people not called Darwin would be expected, so you’re in the right tent there.

Wandering over to the other, surprises tent, who would you presume to speak to? The answer is obviously a Darwin, but that is the paradox, finding a Darwin would suddenly become an expectation, but you’re in the wrong tent, the tent of surprises. Get outta here!”

Our catchall name for everything, “all”, falls into this problem too because, when we call the group of everything “all”, we must include “all” in “all”. Catch-22.


Now, I know these interpretations suffer a bit, actually a lot, from trying to be accessible. The cost has been to compromise mathematical rigour in the interest of explanation. Nonetheless, you can imagine the difficulties the contradictions did impose the super-logical constraints of mathematics when first revealed in the early 20th Century. Thankfully, they were subsequently solved by an alternative version of of that logic called Zermelo–Fraenkel Set Theory, and even if a few brains burst trying to understand it, at least the Universe didn’t implode.

In fact we do a huge amount of complicated maths without even thinking about it. Just like when we mentally define the set “all”, we are constantly reassessing the natural forces acting on and around us, the dynamics of our local environments and the multiple scenarios that make up modern life, plus our affiliations with people in our immediate vicinity and throughout our experience. 

Without some way to deal with such an enormity of information our brains would explode, unable to make sense out of the mess of data, so pigeonholing simplifies that chaos into tractable groups that we can then order into a hierarchy of importance.


It’s fascinating, perhaps counterintuitively, that compulsive hoarders actually lack that ability to categorise and organise. Without that basic skill, everyday living becomes a confusion of decisions and tasks, otherwise a nightmare of innavigable difficulties. And this extends into more abstract concepts too: obsessive–compulsive personality disorder (OCD), of which hoarding is a sub-type, recognises OCD individuals being, “overconscientious, scrupulous, and inflexible about matters of morality, ethics, or values (not accounted for by cultural or religious identification)” [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, 2000 American Psychiatric Association].

These compulsive behaviours are known to be in response to anxiety, to assuage its intensity, but the cause of that anxiety could originate in that individual’s difficulties assessing their environment. A type of autism then? Well, yes, there are some marked behavioural and neurochemical similarities in both conditions [Susanne Bejerot, Abraham Weizman, Ruth Gross-Isseroff. Communality between Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Comprehensive Guide to Autism, 2014, pp 671-692].


 Another well known feature of these conditions is an incapacity for relating to others. The remedial response is a preference for isolation. We all need our space, but outright hermitism is either usually received with suspicion, or revered as a sublime martyrdom. Either way, it ain’t natural. If there is one standout trait amongst collected humans, then it is our want or need for company and shared membership, to be part of a bigger whole, an expression of our tribalism for everything from family to club to religion. 

Coupled with an inexhaustible capacity for inventive naming, our group mentality for shared interests are often described in familiar terms: “brothers” and “sisters”, “our Father who art in heaven”, “the family of man”, “distant cousins”, “brother from another mother”, etc. Putting family into familiar, we take the language of Kin Selection and apply it to non-genetic relations. 

But, I think that’s a set of ideas worth saving for another day. After all, I only popped in to say, “Hi, All”.


Please ask your family and friends to "all" pledge on The Dissent Of Man.


Thank you.


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