From Man Alive! – “The greatest invention in the history of humanity.”

From: Man Alive! A survival manual for the human mind.

Extract from Chapter 4. The greatest invention in the history of humanity.

In the last chapter, I raised the idea of your being stranded on a desert island. That’s a hugely unlikely scenario, but it’s interesting to think about because everything that is true of you, as a type of entity, is true of you in isolation. You’re in this all alone, recall, and there is no factual statement that we can make about your nature as a human being that is not true of you even – especially! – when you are isolated from all other people.

In later chapters, we will take up the implications of your fundamental ontological solitude. For now I want to focus on the existential solitude of being stranded. Is there anyone for you to talk to? To cuddle up to? To fight against or to make love with? No. You possess everything you were able to recover from your plane crash or your shipwreck, but there is no one else with you, and anything else you might want you will have to provide for yourself – if you can – or else do without.

But cheer up, Bunkie! You don’t have a knife, but you know that knives exist, and you can apply yourself to making one. It may turn out to be a crude thing compared to the knives you can buy in a store, but close enough is good enough. You don’t have a calendar to keep track of time, but you can easily make one with stones or sticks. With but a few exceptions, you don’t have any of the artifacts we take for granted in Western Civilization, but you have owned a great many of those tools and toys in your time, and you can recreate some of them as you wait to be rescued. You are poor in practical technology, but you are infinitely rich in technological knowledge.

Why is that so? Because of Fathertongue. We stand on the shoulders of giants. To say the truth, mostly we lounge on the shoulders of giants, but even the least and the laziest of us carries within his mind vast stores of accumulated human knowledge. You may not know how to make everything you have ever owned or used or seen or heard about, but you know that those things exist, and you know what purposes they are intended to serve. Even if you are an electrical engineer by trade, you will not be able to make a computer, but you can craft a make-shift abacus with hand-spun twine and dried berries. Lo-tech don’t mean no-tech.

That’s a wondrous thing, that you know so much, at least in a general way, that you did not have to discover on your own. You may not need it every day of your isolation, but you know a ton of math, enough to keep yourself busy – and enough to triangulate on the stars, perhaps, to determine your approximate location. You know dozens of songs and poems to keep yourself amused as you pass the time, and, if you are very clever, you may be able to craft the tools needed to keep a journal. You know how to build a shelter for yourself, and how to plant a garden. You may not lead a prosperous life, stuck there all alone, but you know a lot about how to provide for yourself.

Are you gloating now at all those philosophers, theologians, academics, artists, journalists and other so-called “thought leaders” who have told you all your life how insignificant your mind is, how incompetent it is to solve the problem of survival? Gloat away, but do recall that virtually everything you know about the world outside your mind was discovered by someone else, and you know all of these amazing things not because you abstracted them yourself but because you were lucky enough to absorb them in the concentrated form of Fathertongue.

So let’s complicate the scenario just a little bit. Suppose you incurred a head injury in the catastrophe that led to your being stranded. You are alive, hale and healthy, but you have suffered a complete amnesia of everything you ever learned in Fathertongue. You know how to walk and how to eliminate bodily wastes without soiling yourself, because you mastered those skills while you were still a toddler, before you had learned to think in Fathertongue. You know how to babble in vocal signals that usually produce results – but there is no one to babble to. You know how to sit and play until you get hungry, and you know how to feed yourself – once someone has put a plate of food in front of you.

Actual amnesia does not work this way, of course, but how do you think you would you fare, as an over-sized toddler on a desert island? Would you be able to provide yourself with food and shelter and amusements? Would you be able to document your experience, either to share with others when you are rescued, or at least to leave behind you as a record if rescue should come too late? Would you be phlegmatic about your fate, meeting each new challenge with grit and determination? Or would you just bawl yourself into a state of lathered exhaustion and then perish in a few hours or a few days from dehydration or starvation?

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