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Who Invented Water?

Huge, classic library with marble busts of classic scholars

A comfortable survival depends greatly on predictability. Specifically the ability to predict the availability of the resources needed for survival. When humans cooperate to increase the chances of survival, they create standards and expectations for everyone in the group related to the accumulation and use of the resources. Possession of resources is power, and the magnitude of the power is directly related to the amount of resources possessed relative to the others in the group. As a result, the lack of resources creates vulnerability.

The creation of the standards and expectations is very important to each group of cooperating humans. Rules facilitate the predictability needed for discovery and innovation. However, the creation of the rules is always done by the powerful, so the questioning of the rules is equally important for the survival of the whole. The questioning of the rules is typically done by the young members of the group. As young humans develop, they push boundaries in order to better understand the world around them, to understand why we do the things we do. But the role of questioning the status quo isn't limited to the young. In any given group, people fall into three categories: adherents, drones, and questioners.

Adherents usually benefit in some way, or they believe they benefit in some way, from the existing rules, and as a result, follow and enforce, or support the enforcement, of the rule. Drones rarely think about the rules outside of following them. They do not ask where they came from or why they are in place. Adherents love drones. Questioners want to know why rules exist and wonder who benefits from their existence.

The most interesting thing about the roles of adherent, drone, and questioner is that most humans are all three. Each person's unique experience means they adhere to some rules, are drones in regards to some rules, and question others. In an ideal situation, drones wouldn't exist, however, due to the complexities of most modern societies, the ability to question the status quo is either a luxury or a vital necessity.

I am from a middle class white family in the South Eastern US. I wildly and frantically questioned everything around me for a while, but in my early 20s, while serving in the Navy, I became an adherent for the world from which I came. Southern culture is often described with quaint anecdotes related to food, music, family, and such, but is really built to protect the most laissez faire version of American Capitalism.

Capitalism is just one framework out of many humans have tried over the centuries. The goal of all of the frameworks have been to gather enough wealth to make it where the rules no longer apply to you; to be the sole determinant of how you spend your time. It is a goal that simultaneously acknowledges the utility of the rules in creating a comfortable way to survive and the human desire for freedom. The desire to be free of rules that govern everyone else is a very strong one. The desire robbed many of us of our fathers and exploited the efforts of our mothers. The desire is strong enough to allow people to do despicable, hypocritical things such as claiming to be a follower of Jesus while violently subjugating other human beings. The desire becomes so strong that anyone questioning the rules is seen as an existential threat. The desire is strong enough to hide questions like "is this the only way to ensure a comfortable survival?" from many of us.

When I left the Navy to attend a state university in the South, I was a pretty strong adherent to the standards and expectations of conservative Southern culture. I was ready to invest my personal and familial wealth into my quest to rise above the rules by using the rules that were built to benefit people just like me. I had chosen to ignore many of the questions I had asked as a teen, though I still had some lingering doubts about the whole thing. I told myself I was a true believer, but I was literally the definition of "fake it until you make it." Fighting and questioning the rules was very hard, and the consequences were pretty strong. People that questioned the status quo were shunned or imprisoned or subjected to various forms of violence and aggression. It was really just easier to play the game.

I decided to study International Affairs, and one of my first classes was taught by a professor from Switzerland. He was everything I had been conditioned to hate, to see as a threat to my goal. He was comically stereotypical with his elbow-patched tweed jacket, wire-rimmed glasses, salt-and-pepper beard and wild hair, and the pretentiousness of a European academic. On the very fist day, he paced in front of the students in stadium seating until it was quiet. He allowed us to marinate in the silence for a few minutes and then he said, "I don't know who invented water," while one hand extended a vertical index finger at about shoulder level indicating an important point was coming and the other hand remained nestled in the small of his back showing his comfort with the profound. He turned and paced the other way but kept his focus on the upper part of the side wall where he apparently kept his most important insights hidden. "But I know it wasn't the fish," he added is his best Professor Ludwig Von Drake accent. He continued slowly to the wall, both arms confidently behind his back now that the profundity had been delivered, as he let each of us bathe in confusion. He turned on his heel and moved back to the center of the room where he turned to face the class head on for the first time. "What does this mean," he asked.

"I don't know who invented water, but I know it wasn't the fish."

It took me a few weeks of class to understand what it meant, and several years to understand how to use it. The first time I understood what he meant was when one of the professor's friends, another professor that was visiting from Austria, helped him lead a discussion about the US Constitution. The point of the lecture was to get us to ask why Americans hold the Constitution as sacred. He mentioned how the Swiss seem to re-write their constitution quite frequently. Questioning the sacred nature of the Constitution clearly made many of the students uncomfortable. Some were armed with rote responses about the importance of the Constitution and others just squirmed like an earthworm that had suddenly found itself on a hot sidewalk after a strong summer rain. He assured us he was not questioning the importance, and wasn't even questioning the substance of the document, but rather just wanted us to question why we collectively treat it as sacred.

Just like the fish in water, the world around us just was and always had been. His stupid riddle had given me an excuse to once again question why things are like they are. It helped me see that we are sometimes so blinded by our circumstances that we don't even think to ask why those circumstances exist in the first place. It forced me to think about what I believe is really important and how I would design things if I had the chance. It helped me navigate my way through all of the layers of abstraction created by modern life.

Adherents and questioners are very important to our ability to live together. We all must be willing to accept that some rules come from lessons already learned, sometimes in very difficult ways, by those that came before us. We must also be willing to accept that as humans grow and change some rules must be abolished or modified. Whether it is laws enforced by armed agents of the state, or social norms that determine who is invited to the party, and everything in between, we can never stop asking who invented the water.


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