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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, January 22, 2006

lumpers and splitters

On dark, rainy January days it seems right and normal to spend one's morning reading and typing from research books. I served Kimmie coffee in bed so she could sit awhile in our cold room and read the next Laurell K. Hamilton vampire novel, Obsidian Butterfly. I came down here and resumed my investigations into the mystery of identity: what is it?

Today I started my quest with a return to Infinity and the Mind by Rudy Rucker: more on set theory. I sat hunched over the small corner of my computer table that is not occupied by equipment, reading the splayed paperback, highlighting the material more comprehensively than I did when I made my last pass this way. (I don't know exactly when that was. I do remember the first time I read the book all the way through: it was February 1990, when I had pneumonia. I would crawl from bed down to sofa in the livingroom while snow fell deep and soft outside, and followed a schedule of reading, drawing, and other sofa-ridden activities through each day. I had the leisure to read the book and pay attention to it, plus, as I've mentioned before, the presence of a fever actually heightens my mental alertness and concentration--at least up to a point.) I read and highlighted my way through the subsection "Pure Sets and the Physical Universe", then keyed the highlights into a Word document.

I also keyed some more material from Communitarianism and Individualism, the essay "Membership", and moved on to Serpent in the Sky by John Anthony West. Questing, questing.

One thing seems clear to me, at least: our identity is not who we are, it's who we think we are--and, to some extent, who others think we are. My idea of myself is learned. After I'm born, I learn about the world, and at the same time I learn about the preexistent fact of myself. Gradually I discover who I am. The mental model I build of myself is what we call identity. Its most important components, in terms of relating with the world, are its most contentious aspects--those which seem to generate conflict with my environment--and those aspects which I have adopted by choice, such as being a Buddhist or a vegetarian.

I was spurred to look into set theory because of Amin Maalouf's assertion that our identity is simply the combination, unique in each individual case, of all the groups to which we belong. In mathematical terms these groups are sets, and Maalouf is saying that my identity is the intersection of all these sets. Are we really performing a mathematical set operation when we establish our identity? I wondered. I decided to refresh my memory on the basics of set theory; hence Rucker's book.

I was excited on the one hand when Rucker referred to set theory as a continuation of the ancient philosophical question of the Many and the One (is the world fundamentally Many, or One?); but on the other hand the lack of a conclusion to that ancient question seemed to point to inconclusiveness on the question of identity too. Even the mathematics depends on your point of view, your assumptions about the world.

I think back to Mr. Bennett, my social-studies teacher in junior high school. In one of his characteristically irreverent and provocative talks to the class he made this observation: "There are two kinds of people: lumpers and splitters. Lumpers like to lump everything together. Splitters like to keep everything apart. Like when people eat dinner: some people like to push everything together on their plate, others want to keep everything separated."

I didn't take Mr. Bennett's observation too seriously at the time; it was just another one of his half-serious observations. But of course, with anything that's half-serious, there's a tendency to overlook the half that is serious. The identity issue, as it applies to political issues, may indeed boil down to Mr. Bennett's scheme. You're either a lumper or a splitter.

Or at least, you identify yourself as one.

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