The Better Letter: Seawright’s Paradox

Is humanity stupid, brilliant, or both?

“Life is the sum of all your choices,” Albert Camus (allegedly) informed us. Unfortunately, our decision-making is far from perfect, with too many outcomes weaned on bourbon and poor choices.

We choose poorly far too often on matters big and small, vital and prosaic, important and ordinary.

This week’s TBL starts there – at the place in which we all wallow far too often. But it doesn’t end there.

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Seawright’s Paradox

Larry Walters had always wanted to fly. When he was old enough, he joined the military, but he could not see well enough to become a pilot. After he returned from Vietnam and was discharged, he would often sit in his backyard watching jets fly overhead, dreaming about flying and scheming about how to get into the sky. 

On July 2, 1982, the San Pedro, California trucker finally set out to accomplish his dream. Because his story has been told in a variety of ways over a variety of media outlets, it is impossible to know precisely what happened but, as a police officer commented later, “It wasn’t a highly scientific expedition.” At Hollywood High School, Larry did a science project on “Hydrogen and Balloons.” He got a D on it.

Larry – who was a McDonald’s man: hamburgers, French fries, and Coca-Cola, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – conceived his “act of American ingenuity” while sitting outside in his “extremely comfortable” Sears, Roebuck lawn chair. He purchased weather balloons from an Army-Navy surplus store, tied them to his chair, and filled the balloons with helium.

After packing sandwiches, Miller Lite, a CB radio, a camera, a pellet gun, a parachute, a life preserver, and 30 one-pound jugs of water for ballast – but without a seatbelt – he climbed into his makeshift craft, dubbed “Inspiration I.” His plan, such as it was, called for him to float lazily above the rooftops at about 100 feet for a while, pounding beers, and then to use the pellet gun to explode the balloons one-by-one so he could float to the ground.

But when the last cord that tethered the makeshift craft to his Jeep snapped, Walters and his lawn chair did not rise lazily into the sky. Larry shot up to an altitude of about three miles (higher than a Cessna can go), yanked by the lift of four clusters of helium weather balloons, 42 in all, each about seven feet in diameter and holding 33 cubic feet of helium. He did not dare shoot any of the balloons because he feared that he might unbalance the load and fall (remember, he wasn’t wearing any sort of safety harness). 

So, he slowly drifted along, cold and frightened, in his lawn chair, with his beer and sandwiches, for more than 14 hours. A private plane buzzed below him. He eventually crossed the primary approach corridor of Los Angeles International Airport. A flustered TWA pilot spotted Larry and radioed the tower that he was passing a guy in a lawn chair with a gun at 16,000 feet.

Eventually, Larry conjured up the nerve to shoot several balloons before accidentally dropping his pellet gun overboard. It was never recovered. The shooting did the trick and Larry descended toward Long Beach until the dangling tethers got caught in a power line, causing an electrical blackout in the neighborhood below. Fortunately, Walters was able to climb to the ground safely from there.

The Long Beach Police Department and federal authorities were waiting. Regional safety inspector Neal Savoy said, “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed. If he had a pilot’s license, we’d suspend that. But he doesn’t.”

As he was led away in handcuffs, a reporter asked Larry why he had undertaken his mission. The answer was simple and poignant. “A man can’t just sit around,” he said.

In 1976, Berkeley’s Carlo M. Cipolla published an essay outlining the fundamental laws of a force he argued is humanity’s greatest existential threat: Stupidity. “Lawn Chair Larry” provides excellent evidence in support of his argument.

Being flawed isn’t a respecter of persons and isn’t a mere propensity, either. It is our default setting. It’s not intentional but rather an inherent condition. It abhors complex thinking and assumes that what we see is all there is. As Koen Smets so pithily puts it, “We are bamboozled by biases, fooled by fallacies, entrapped by errors, hoodwinked by heuristics, deluded by illusions.” 

Finally and crucially, these propensities are mostly opaque to us. They leave no cognitive trace.

The parade of horribles history has put on display is dreadful in its creativity, scope, and power. We have built death camps and filled them beyond capacity. We have made terror, war, and their threat a constant. We have fostered slavery, misogyny, and discrimination. We have trafficked other humans for profit and amusement. We have abused power, privilege, and potential. We are far too often selfish, cruel, nasty, and violent. 

As the evil Noah Cross (John Huston) tells Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown, “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” What he’s admitting there is that he raped his own daughter (and the film, ironically, was directed by Roman Polanski, himself a child rapistmultiple times over, after providing drugs and alcohol, and who fled to France to avoid punishment and extradition). 

In light of this reality, many are deeply pessimistic about whether and how humans might overcome our terrible tendencies. Daniel Kahneman has concluded that we can’t do much to help ourselves in this regard and seems to doubt our capacity to change. Because humans are blind and biased, we “should replace humans with algorithms whenever possible.” 

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman argued that humans are “blind to the obvious, and that we also are blind to our blindness.” Kahneman seems to follow the rigid Javert from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and rejects the idea that Valjean, the reformed criminal, transformed by grace (or any of us, for that matter), can change. “There is nothing on earth that we share. It is either Valjean or Javert!”

As Kahneman said when asked about his hope for human improvement, individually and collectively, in light of our biases and cognitive illusions: “I’m not an optimist in general and I’m certainly not an optimist about those questions…. You don’t get there.” 

Behavioral economics is endlessly fascinating but largely devoid of ways to mitigate the problems so engagingly put on display.

Truth be told, we have made progress, and often enormous progress, on virtually every human problem except for the most fundamental one. Human nature – a complex amalgam of the base and the heroic, the compassionate and the brutal, the brilliant and the imbecilic – remains largely static across human history. “The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be,” writes sociobiologist E.O. Wilson. As Leibniz saidquoting a line from his favorite comic opera, “Everywhere and always, it’s the same as it is here.”

As the human character who created Westworld tells his “host” creation, “I've told you, Bernard, never place your trust in us. We're only human. Inevitably, we'll only disappoint you.”

It is far from the entire story, however.

The scientific method, despite its limitations and shortcomings, provides a solid demonstration that we may do irrational things sometimes, even oft times, but we aren’t irrational through and through. We may do crazy things, but we aren’t crazy. Moreover, it demonstrates that our biases and cognitive impairments can be mitigated, if not overcome. 

As the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has argued, worldwide standards of living began to improve in the late 18th century and have continued to improve ever since for two primary reasons: the development of science and developments in social organization, most prominently the growth of free-market economies and the rule of law. Significantly, science and the rule of law both include carefully derived and articulated systems and methods of assessing and verifying reality and what it means.

Humanity has moved from huts in Sub-Saharan Africa to high-rises around Central Park, from fighting for basic freedoms to fundraising for philanthropy, from struggling for survival to searching for the secrets of the universe. Humans have split atoms and spliced genes. Humans have extended lifespans and expanded economies. Humans have provided prosperity and limited poverty. We contemplate the quantum, the cosmos, and the commonplace. There is much still to be done, of course, but there is profound hope for the future because so much remarkable good has already been done. 

We are heroes and villains, geniuses and dullards, saints and sinners, typical and extraordinary, right and wrong, sometimes all at once, sometimes selectively, and sometimes unknowingly. That often difficult human reality is central to who, what, why, and how we are. There is no avoiding it and no consensus about it. 

Still, nowadays are the best days to be human, and we have had a huge hand in that. Nowadays are the best days to be human, and the progress we have seen in getting there would have been impossible without some ability to overcome, or at least manage, who and what we are. 

Some see red flags everywhere. Others see a parade. All are both wrong and right.

All-day, every day, we are observers of the world around us. We interpret what we perceive and make decisions based upon those interpretations. It is axiomatic that the more accurate our observations and the better our interpretations of them – the closer they comport with objective reality – the better our decisions will be.

On most days, all too much of the time, we’re delusional, lazy, short-sighted, partisan, arrogant, easily distracted confabulators. Whether we’re looking in the mirror or into our souls, we usually see only the best version of ourselves. In effect, we often hold up a picture of who we like to think we are or can be, point to it, and pretend it’s what we look like. It’s an unfortunate reality, but reality nonetheless

It is true that the world is full of stupidity and stupid people and that there is always more than enough evil to go around. It is simultaneously true that we should never ignore or underestimate what humanity has done and can accomplish. 

Let’s call it Seawright’s Paradox.

Totally Worth It

The following is perhaps the best one-minute film I’ve ever seen.

This is the most powerful thing I saw or read this week. The most significant. The funniest. The most fascinating. The coolest. The most horrible, unless it was this. The most uplifting. The loveliest. A picture is worth a thousand words.

You may contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter – @rpseawright – with questions, comments, and critiques. Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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In the days, months, and years after Easter, the women and men who had denied, dishonored, and abandoned their Lord “turned the world upside-down.” They did so when they discovered that the Kingdom of God is itself upside-down, at least by common reckoning. God does not answer our questions so much as question our answers. The last shall be first. Those who would be great become the servants of all. Love your enemies. Down means up and up means down. The world looks different when you’re flying upside down.

This week’s benediction is Andrew Peterson’s stirring Easter song, “His Heart Beats.”

Issue 59 (April 16, 2021)