The White Swan: Beyond Occam’s Razor

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by John Salskov-Iversen

[Editor’s note: A large section of this essay was inadvertently omitted when we first published this issue. We have corrected that error and the essay below is now complete.]


“What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”
~ Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is – infinite”~ William Blake

The human race (Homo sapiens sapiens, as we like to call ourselves), is possibly the most extreme example of an invasive species the planet has ever experienced.  Perhaps 200,000 years ago, an infinitesimal number of us diverged from our parent species (Homo sapiens) and now seven billion of us swarm every landmass on the Earth.  The majority of this explosion in population occurred only in the last two centuries; from one billion individuals to seven billion individuals.  Five billion people were added in the last hundred years alone.  This geometry is a type signature of an invasive species, a species that has occupied an ecological niche in which it has no natural predators or other environmental checks to limit its growth. 

That we are no longer subject to any natural predation is self-evident; we have become the apex predator of the entire globe.

How, then, have we evaded all other environmental checks to exponential growth, to the present tune of seven billion and accelerating ever further?

The popular view is that mankind settled down from ragged bands of opportunistic scavengers, “hunter-gatherers,” to far superior lives as herdsmen and farmers.

That shift in paradigm, to my way of thinking, actually came about a little earlier than two centuries ago, as expressed in the dawn of the Neolithic . . . a time beginning perhaps twelve thousand years ago.  The popular view is that mankind settled down from ragged bands of opportunistic scavengers, “hunter-gatherers,”, to far superior lives as herdsmen and farmers.  We domesticated both plants and animals, mastered metallurgy and subsequently learned the arts of politics, economics, organized religion and warfare to manage the enormous richesse gained from exploiting our environment in these new ways.  The first cities were built, and the first proto-nations were formed. Humans had discovered the extractive economy, and assumed the power of life and death over all they surveyed.  Most of us became civilized, through privilege or force.

In the view of the adherents of this new way of life, the hunter-gatherers who survived faded into the darkness outside the firelight of civilization.  They and their economy, the economy of symbiosis, seemed to disappear into the hinterlands, the wilderness. How convenient to dismiss the victims of the mentality of extraction this way!

Now, the fundament of the extractive economy is that it assumes that the resources from which it profits are limitless and effectively free for the taking.  Oil, that geologic distillation of Carboniferous swamps, has no value and no price until we put a price upon it.  The act of possession becomes singly material, rather than relational.  The concept of abstract wealth as a mensuration of the material life enters here; two primary expressions of early metallurgy were weapons and currency; war and commerce.  The very land itself becomes a commodity to be bought and sold, invaded and defended, as also do the people who live upon it.

The economy of symbiosis has no currency.

The economy of symbiosis has no currency. It lacks the initial and subsequent levels of separation in which the relational algorithm is separated into subject and object.  Value can neither be accumulated or lost, as it cannot be differentiated from the act of living, which itself is intrinsically a zero-sum process.   It is fractal in nature: “As above, so below.” 

The difference between these two economies is the result of something I can only identify as a cognitive mutation, a genetic fault line or discontinuity in the neural stratigraphy of the human mind. The new culture, this invasive subspecies which I call  Homo sapiens sapiens novus, rapidly overwhelmed the old and became the dominant feature in any ecosystem it colonized.  And at the spiritual horizon, the symbiotic Shamanic worldview appeared to succumb to the extractive Neolithic, the hierarchic imposition of Deity, Deified, and Profane.  William Blake’s doors of perception were barred and nailed shut, for all practical purposes, forever.

Or so the colonizers thought.

Another characteristic of an invasive species is that its population crashes just as dramatically as it expanded when it has consumed the relative overabundance of resources that were available to it in the environments it colonized. To that species, this is a terminal Black Swan Event; conditions of life as they know it abruptly end, as do the lives of most – if not all – of the population.

The world we are living in today, with its increasingly and violently erratic climate, ever more tenuous energy base and debased and poisoned lands, seas, and atmosphere shows all the signs of a niche pushed past its limits of recovery by an invasive species. Concomitantly, the arts of politics, economics, organized religion and warfare – the supposed flowers of the Neolithic mutation – have proved barren and seedless and are rotting on the stem. As William Yeats forewarned in ”The Second Coming”:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The survivors will be the Shamans, those who have retained or re-learned the alphabet of symbiosis, both physical and spiritual.  The doors of perception will be opened and cleansed; the wing song of the first, impossible White Swans will fill the air.


“What we call here a White Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is ex-stasis, as it begins within the realm of regular expectations, because something in the timestream – past, present and future – convincingly points to its possibility. Second, it carries an unconditional holistic resonance; it thrills the soul. Third, in spite of its ecstatic status, human nature makes us aware of its occurrence as a foreshadowing, making it intrinsic and desirable.” ~JSI

“For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” ~ William Blake

William of Ockham is said to have written “Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem,” or, “Plurality must never be posited without necessity,” although the actual phrase has never been discovered in his writings.  This has been used as an epigraph by thinkers since as a dictate to use the one to quantify the multitude rather than the multitude affirming the one.  It is the basis of all modern scientific thought and, as such, the basis of Western culture. 

It is estimated that about one hundred billion neurons of several differing varieties and their accompanying axons, dendrites, and synapses coexist in the human brain – an order of magnitude beyond our comprehension – and that each neuron is capable of firing every five milliseconds, also an order of magnitude beyond our comprehension.  These numbers beggar any concept of plurality that we think we are capable of, yet . . . . it is indisputable that they are present inside the vaults of our skulls and account, as an example, for the writing of this sentence.

This leads me to deduce that we civilized humans self-censor or redact very nearly all that we are aware of, or at least it would appear that way, until I think about Aldo Leopold and his critique of flood control with respect to the natural rhythms of any given ecology.  He wrote of the insanity (I use this word literally) of the Army Corps of Engineers and their program of straightening the sinuous curves of natural river channels to greatly improve the flow of – in the Corps’ opinion – an unneeded and unwanted abundance of water, then putting dams on those ruler straight channels to “control” the flow they just had created. 

This infliction disrupted the land, the watershed, and the communities of life that lived there, sometimes terminally.  

“Flood Control,” they called it.  “Prevents Erosion,” they intoned.  That a river should be allowed to “flood” and run outside its banks was a very bad thing; a “good” river flowed exactly where the Corps told it to run, and when, and how.  Leopold pointed out the obvious; that the Corps’ efforts did neither, and that they actually damaged the geomorphology and hydrology of the living organism of the land.  In short, this infliction disrupted the land, the watershed, and the communities of life that lived there, sometimes terminally. 

As above, so below: the vault of our skull contains the watershed of awareness and the cognitive rivers that flow from it. To put it another way, the net of interactions of billions of neurons – if perceived as the billions of molecules of water residing in a geological watershed – becomes the cognitive watershed, and its resultant rivers of awareness, each singular as a sentence.  That these rivers will flood and run outside their banks is the condition of ex-stasis, and, as I stated in the definition of a White Swan event, beginning “within the realm of regular expectations.”.

The cognitive discontinuity introduced during the Neolithic was the beginning of straightening the channels of our perception and as time went on, placing the dams of hierarchical thought along these new, linear constrictions.  The monoliths of politics, economics, organized religion and warfare were imbedded in these straightened channels to control the flow even further. Perceptual stagnation set in – not only unnoticed for what it was, but pursued as a charismatic ideal of perfection – becoming the sine qua non of the human species.  I recognize these forms of thought as the type specimens of what I’ll call Homo sapiens sapiens novus.  Civilized people had shuttered the doors of perception.  Awareness had been civilized; all that remained were the narrowing “chinks of his cavern.”. The rivers had been channeled, the flow multiply dammed.

Civilized people had shuttered the doors of perception.

The celebration of pluralities, the seeing of one/ness in all/ness and all/ness in one/ness, and the renewal cycle of ex-stasis intrinsic to the previous two hundred thousand years of human cognition was deemed unnecessary.  What was necessary was to straighten ever more cognitive channels, build more cognitive dams.  Those populations of humans who persisted in the primal, unregulated cycle of cognition, and the renewal of ex-stasis, were driven out, marginalized, or killed.

This is nowhere more evident than in the contrast between the Neolithic extractive economies and the Shamanic symbiotic economies and the history of the Neolithic rise to dominance.  The Neolithic human, Homo sapiens sapiens novus, became the apex predator of the entire planet in a geological nanosecond, the most successful invasive species we know of.  What he did with his cognition, so did he to his physical environment.  In human time, this did not take overnight but, as I said, over a dozen or so millennia; now, the last remnant fragments of the aboriginal Shamanic populations persist as a curiosity, an exhibit, on reservations set up for them by their keepers.  Equally, the last remnant fragments of the uncut, unmined, unbulldozed, undammed, unharvested, unoccupied original landscape are set aside as “wilderness,” whether as a signal reminder – as decapitated heads of the enemy were impaled on spikes and displayed on castle walls – or as a bittersweet nostalgia, I do not know.

And so we come to the forty third Hexagram of the I-Ching, Kuai (break-through or resoluteness), as expressed in the Wilhelm-Baynes translation of the I-Ching:

                 The Image
The lake has risen up to heaven:
The image of BREAK-THROUGH.
Thus the superior man
Dispenses riches downward
And refrains from resting on his virtue.

Wilhelm and Baynes write, “The hexagram Kuai actually means a break-through as when a river bursts its dams in seasons of flood.  The five strong lines are thought of as mounting from below, resolutely forcing the weak upper line out of the hexagram.”

For all the channeling and dam building done to our awareness and cognitive process, it must be realized that the original perceptual landscape is the bedrock of mythos upon which the Neolithic constructed its artifices of logos.  An irrevocable result of the straightened channels and dams of rivers subjected to flood control is that the water’s impoundments silt up until the channel is no longer a channel and the dam is no longer a dam.  The water then finds its own way again, true to its nature no matter how long previously confined. 

This is true . . . . whether we speak of the watersheds and rivers of the planet or the watersheds and rivers within the vault of our skull, the cognitive universe:; partly planet and partly person.

In precisely this sense, the White Swan events of our lives herald the bursting of the dams erected to constrain our actual, original cognitive gifts and the recognition of the return of the Shamanic river of perpetual return.

The One is forever the Other: As above, so below.
Or, as William Blake put it: “Energy is eternal delight.”

© 2011 Salskov Iversen
Revised from version originally published in Stories in the Stars blog:

On May 21, 2014 at 3:00 a.m.  John Salskov-Iversen had an unexpected stroke: his left carotid artery was completely blocked and no surgical (or otherwise) intervention was possible.  He was 64 years of age.

Thus his previous life was ended.
He had to learn how to feed himself and to walk and to talk and to write, etc.
The struggle continues to reprogram his neural context, accompanied by occasional flashes of insight.

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