A Slight Digression

In the last post, I mentioned the over-active pattern-making sense of humans as being responsible for such theories as astrology, alchemy and the theory of bodily humors, which have been superceded by astronomy, chemistry and modern medicine.  Recently, I read a book that discusses human pattern-making, and describes it as being responsible for more that just those superceded theories.  The author describes it as a natural ability, one that cannot be avoided, and he calls it the “supersense”.  The way that each of those old theories was eventually overthrown is that measurement was brought to bear on each, and the theories were found to be unsatisfactory as explanations of natural phenomena, not to mention unreliable for predicting results.

The book is Supersense, by Bruce M. Hood.  It has a subtitle: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable.1 In it, the author, a psychologist, says that human pattern-making is part of the mental tool-set that humans evolved that has made them successful in a biological/survival sense, at least so far.  It is the sense that allows people to pick up on almost subliminal clues and figure out that something hostile is about to attack them: isn’t that a leopard about to jump at me?; or in a desert, recognize the conditions that indicate the presence of water.  Its operation is unconscious and conscious all at once, and is quite effective in many situations.

However, pattern-making tends to operate in ways that are not necessarily appropriate for some other situations, drawing conclusions about patterns that rely on supernatural explanations.  He describes presenting a lecture, and during it, passing around a pen that he says was owned by Albert Einstein (a lie), but people treat it with reverence.  Then he asks if anyone would be willing to try on a somewhat tattered cardigan.  People evidently will volunteer, until he explains that it belonged to a serial murderer.  No volunteers after that.  Both provenances are not true, but people’s supersense reads more into the objects than are really there.  Other examples that he talks about are superstitions of athletes, who refuse to wear anything other than their lucky clothes during the duration of a tennis tournament or step on the white lines on the court.  The supersense is evidence, he says, of the way that objects can be imbued with more “meaning” that can be sensed by just touching them, seeing them or otherwise using sense organs to perceive them.

And the operation of the supersense is unavoidable, according to Hood, and he uses examples from his work with how babies and young children learn to perceive and manage their world to support his contention that it is natural, and thus, unavoidable.  He does show there are ways to limit or overcome this supersense, among them, approaching objects without their supersense narrative: approaching them scientifically as a measurable object.

I believed myself to be “immune” from this sort of finding supernatural meaning in patterns, but I was wrong, as the author pointed out.  He gives some examples of objects that are considered “sacred” when they really are just objects that rely on the viewer, owner, believer to imbue with meaning.  Examples that humbled me are his list of “sacred” documents such as the Magna Carta and the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  I hope there is a difference: he implies that the actual copies of these documents are the “sacred objects”, while I am less concerned with the parchment and more concerned with the ideas contained thereupon.  However, there are objects for me that rise to being important or meaningful, based on the understanding of narratives that I associate with them.

When my wife and I went to England in 2006, we went to places and viewed sites that I can only describe as “meaningful” to me, if not actually “sacred”.  Among them were Stonehenge, the stone circle at Avebury, and the White Horse, all evidence of pre-historic creative life in England.  To feel a connection with them at all, one must imbue the stones or the chalk drawing with a sense of history, which may be the result of “knowing” some of the story of each.  But a great stone on a plain that has been made to stand up on end by some people is just a big stone.  It, in and of itself, is not only mute, but for it to have meaning, the viewer must make up reasons.

Detail from the photo of the Cherhill White Horse

I did feel a connection with Stonehenge, with the stones in Avebury, and especially with the White Horse.  One of the signs, which I only read recently by enlarging the picture, describes the Cherhill White Horse as being one of a number of white horses cut into hillsides.  Wile looking at it, I thought it was unique, but to my surprise, the one that we viewed was, at most, 300 years old.  All the information I had until then should have been associated with the Uffington White Horse, which is ancient, dating to about 1000 BC.

The whole picture that I enlarged to read the sign

What more perfect example of the operation of the supersense:  I thought that I had seen a white horse that was carved into a hill that was roughly 3000 years old, and that it had been maintained for all these years by a party repeated every summer to refresh the chalk.  Well, based on the information from two websites:



I have been corrected.  The Cherhill White Horse, one of some 20 to 30 white horses in Wiltshire, was created in 1780, and is “solid and more or less naturalistic”.  It did have one distinctive feature, it had a glass eye, that originally was a bottle set to stand upright.  Over the years, the bottle and its successors have gone missing and been replaced – currently, the eye is stone and concrete.  But when it was glass, it used to “gleam”.

I have seen a picture of the Uffington White Horse, but do not have the correct permissions to use it.  Click on this url to see a picture of it:


The Uffington White Horse is not naturalistic, nor is it solid.  The figure is made up of a set of curved lines, not all of which are connected.  While it is called a “horse”, it could be a schematic drawing of a dragon – this is the England where St. George slew one.  The maintenance was performed every 7 years, a mystical number if ever there was one, and had lapsed only a hundred or so years ago.  Maintenance was a big mid-summer party that “…could last for over three days, and consisted of fun and games, traditional cheese rolling, wrestling and other pastimes.”  Traditional cheese rolling?  Huh?

The connection for me was the thought of people maintaining a landmark for 3000 years.  Wow.  This says a lot about enduring attitudes.

The Uffington White Horse has been attributed to several early English monarchs, but their dates are too recent (King Alfred, 871 AD; Hengist, 5th century AD, too recent?). The Wiltshire White Horses site states that there were those who believed it was made in the iron age, but a recent dating technique has placed it within the bronze age, between 1400 BC and 600 BC, and narrowed it to between 1200 BC and 800 BC.  The measurement technique is called optical stimulated luminescence dating (OSL), which can tell “…how long soil has been hidden from sunlight.”  My next post will include further discussion of this technique.

Once I was aware of this new information, my supersense connection underwent a change, and I am now clear about holding the Uffington White Horse within the notable or sacred or whatever category, as opposed to the rest of the Wiltshire White Horses, because they do not have the provenance of age.  This probably says something more about me than about the White Horses, but it does indicate to me that as a total skeptic, I have failed to scourge myself of transitory reverence for ‘supernatural’ connections.

During that same trip, we encountered a copy of the Magna Carta – one of the documents that Bruce Hood mentions.  It is at Salisbury Cathedral, a place at which, when we arrived, we found two unexpected treasures.

We had gone to Stonehenge that morning, walked around in the field where some group of people, still not clearly identified, had set a bunch of huge stones up on end in a rough circle. When my supersense was turned off, I wondered whatever possessed these folks back then to pile up this stuff?  When my supersense was turned on, I looked at the assemblage with admiration, knowing that those who built Stonehenge did not have the kinds of large construction tools that we have now, so being able to assemble and group these stones was a feat deserving awe.  Also knowing that at least one theory of its existence was as a measurement tool: using it as an astronomical observatory to  mark when the pattern of repeating seasons turns from days of increasingly more sunlight hours to days of decreasing sunlight hours at the summer solstice and back again at the winter solstice, made it seem even more remarkable.  If that’s correct, it seems a pretty elaborate construction, but, well, why not.  It certainly gets notable status from my supersense, but sacred?  I can truly attest to no desire to perform a pagan ritual…

However, the next stop was a show-stopper.  We drove to Salisbury, found the Cathedral (not too hard), found a place to park and entered.  The first thing I saw that rocked me was a clock, but at first I didn’t recognize it as such.  I mean, who from a late 20th century – early 21st century – perspective would have recognized it as one.

Weird contraption in Salisbury Cathedral

I only learned what it was by reading the sign, not the one behind it in the picture, but one that was to the left.

Once I learned that this apparatus was a clock, I was bowled over.  I walked around it, looked at it and figured out the mechanics of it.  It really is cool: my connection was the ability to understand the escapement and enjoy the common craftsperson’s understanding of the object with those who had struggled to make it work.  I subsequently learned more about medieval timekeeping, and will discuss that later.

We then went out of the Cathedral proper into its cloisters.  It was only then that we found and followed signs directing us toward the Magna Carta.  We had no idea that it was there, in what they call the Chapter House.  But there it was, on display, a copy of the Magna Carta: evidently a number of copies (13? another mystical number…) were made that King John, in a moment of weakness or peril, was compelled to sign, which were then circulated throughout England.  Of the multiple copies, 5 have survived and we were able to look at the one that is billed as the “best preserved”.

Now, impressive as was Stonehenge, the White Horse, and the clock in the Cathedral, it was this written contract which became the foundation for the civilization I most believe in that took my supersense to its highest pitch, although to be fair, of the 63 paragraphs in it, evidently only 3 still have the force of law.  The object itself was interesting, but I bought a copy of the brochure about it because all of the text of the Magna Carta was in it in the original words and in translation.  So, I have now read it, something I had never done.

What I “knew” of its contents was that it was a form of proclamation of freedom and equality.  In fact, I was quite wrong, but it still clearly contained the seeds from which came the ideas of freedom and equality that I relish.  It is a “contract” describing how relations between the king, the barons, and the other folk (read “men”, after all it was written in the 13th century) shall proceed.

There is one clause that pertains to my inquiries, though:

31.There shall be one measure of wine, of ale and of corn (namely, “the London quarter”) throughout our whole realm. There shall also be one width of cloth (whether dyed, russet, or halberget): that is, two ells within the selvages. Let weights also be standardised similarly.

I am researching this to see if this truly happened: if so, the Brits have been in the leadership group for Europe for standardization of a number of measures.  Based on the comments of the French thinkers at the time of the Revolution, cited in an earlier post, perhaps this early standardization is part of what led the inhabitants of England to be in the forefront of thinking about freedom?  Is it measurement that will make you free (rather than truth)?  Or is standardization of measurement in Britain that led to the excesses of the Industrial Revolution and its wage slavery?

I did not follow the sign, shown above, to the Cathedral Shop and get anything about the clock – I had forgotten about it because of my excitement about the Magna Carta, and didn’t rediscover the clock until I looked at the photos when I downloaded them.  Fortunate for me, my daughter purchased the booklet and sent it to me, along with a photo.

So, Supersense has exposed to me my own willingness to believe, to find a story and use it to make sense of the world and its objects.  There are clearly corollary consequences that deserve exploration for this revelation about myself, and about others.  But what, you might ask, does this reading of Supersense have to do with “measurement”?

The supersense is a result of the pattern recognition ability of humans, and as it is a behavior that has contributed to our evolutionary success, is difficult to ignore or overthrow.  The way that pattern recognition works, though, is that while we can look at objects and make up the stories about them, even with insufficient information, we still make up stories.  The stories just may have no basis in reality.  Here’s where measurement can help:

One of the important uses of measurement is to refine the stories that we tell ourselves to help make sense of the world.  Just in the above, there is a small example of measurement being used to put boundaries on speculations.  By using the OSL dating technique, the story of the Uffington White Horse has been refined.  It is not the product of “iron age” people, nor could it have been carved by Hengist, so boundaries have been put on the possible explanations.

Can this be generalized?  Most likely: using measurement in a scientifically valid way, can help to refine our view of the world, given that we will always try to find meanings or messages in the patterns we discern.  Sort of a trivial lesson, or way of stating something that is actually quite profound.

Another possible lesson is that if one  believes that the scientific manner of measuring things has validity, then what one “knows” can be subject to revision, based on new and better data about it, much like the correction to my understanding of the Uffington White Horse, as opposed to the Cherhill White Horse.  And, now that I’ve patted myself on the back for my ‘flexibility’, the truth is that it may not be the supersense that should be investigated, but the conclusions that the supersense reaches.  Perhaps when the supersense settles on a “supernatural” explanation, it is an indication that the conclusion is suspect, and the pattern requires further investigation to have its meaning explained.  But I’m not sure I would agree to wear a serial killer’s cardigan…

1 Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. Hood, Bruce, HarperOne, a trademark of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, N.Y. 2009.

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