This all began when I was trying to remember Sergeant Preston of the Yukon’s dog’s name. The TV show was about the best of the best of the Royal Canadian Mounties, and it was somewhat strange that it should pop into my head, since I had so many American heroes of that type: The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and several others.
Still it happened one day recently. Maybe it was because the Yukon seemed so exotic to me, or that, as my immigrant aunts would have said it, it was eckvelt, the end of the earth. So I naturally did what anyone nowadays would do – I put the search key words into Google. Right away I learned that this exquisite canine’s name was Yukon King and Google threw in that it wasn’t a husky but an Alaskan Malamute, in case something seemed a little off to me, and that his horse’s name was Rex.
And then I reflected on The Old Days, having to shlep to the library, having to ask the person behind the desk – hoping he or she wouldn’t look at me and wonder why I needed to know the name, and equally hoping I was not being sent to some 1,000-page authorized history of television that didn’t have an index.
From there, it was natural enough for me to consider how much data Google must have to know the answer. It was simply unimaginable. Then, i considered the GPS, with its voice prompts. (I chose the one that was closest to what I imagined Moses had heard on the top of Sinai.) Here was truly a mind-bending store of maps and the accompanying spookiness of thinking that someone was always watching me. Then it was thinking backwards how a fax machine did it or my phone managed caller ID and call forwarding.
From there my mind went to clickers and fobs. The clicker of course, was for the TV channels. (Try describing to a young person how we used to have to get off the couch to change channels by turning a knob – and what “rabbit ears” were.) I didn’t even know what a fob was until my apartment office gave me one to electronically release my front door. I also wondered how I found the right signal among the millions and millions out there and how the one and only right one came through my thick walls to this thing I held in my hand, this clicker, this fob.
The computer mouse was one step beyond all that. After a short while, I realized that the essence of the problem was — how a human being could teach a machine that 2 + 2 = 4, how it all originated with 0’s and 1’s, and how long some of the strings of these two digits must be to produce a digitized scene of Lake Geneva on my Mac screen.
By that time, I knew that, despite the fact that someone could explain it to me “in layperson’s terms”, it would still be beyond me. It would be like grasping the ultimate meaning or worth of Fibonacci numbers, Planck’s constant, or the never-ending
π. The same was true for the mystery of taste buds’ ability to differentiate between manchego and asiago or how eyes can see something out there and transform it into some image inside my head.
I knew, of course that all of this is explainable. My internist could tell me about the tongue, the ophthalmologist in my synagogue, seeing, and my computer-expert brother, human being-to-machine.
Because I had been a student of Abraham Joshua Heschel (May his memory be for a blessing), so extraordinarily learned in Chassidut and each individual Rebbi and their connections to mysticism, a few more unknowns were revealed to me until I sensed that the mystics went too far.
And still, it went back to how a machine “learned” that 2 + 2 = 4 and that human input could create an MRI image that ferreted out the most minuscule tumors or land astronauts on the moon.
I did find one Talmudic source on this topic of the Knowns and the Unknowns on page 54b of Pesachim: “Our Rabbis have taught, [Among the] seven things that are hidden from human beings [are]:
the day of death,
the day of comfort,
the extent of judgment;
one human being does not know what is in another’s heart…”
By now, exhausted by my thinking and overthinking, something happened that I desperately needed. Realizing that these mysteries grew in number as I aged, I learned that it was distracting me from much more important issues for my life. I was supposed to be spending my time with Mitzvah heroes — The Good People of the Earth. It was somewhat similar to the psychologist Abraham Maslow who, at one point in his career, turned from studying the pathology of people to what motivated them to be good. I wasn’t actually interested in the psychology; I was just a student of the things that they were doing to change the world into a more Menschlich place.
This is what I plan to do now — return to my real work, refreshed and relieved from having eliminated the extraneous solutions to mysteries that no longer fascinated me. If anything like these thoughts came to mind again, I would just pass on them and move on. I now feel much better, cured, like finally getting out of bed after five days with the flu.