A few weeks ago, my son popped off a term in one of our uniquely deep and personally satisfying conversations that stuck in my head long after the conversation ended. At the time, it was the right phrase at the right point in the conversation. It was the perfect cornerstone for our topic of conversation at that point, and I recall that our conversation from that point on built on that term. The term was "the law of large numbers."
I have long since forgotten the conversation from that time, but "the law of large numbers" has been stuck into some back recesses of my neurons and has never left. I've been turning over the concept in my head, like turning over a rock with a fossil embedded in it, feeling that there is more to the imprint than the surface reveals, but unable or unwilling to crack the surface to see what was inside and possibly destroying the embedded fossil in the process.
So, the idea of "the law of large numbers" has been going around in my head over and over since I first heard of it. I've considered it from one direction and then another, and it seems to keep popping up when I'm reading something in the least bit philosophical.
This morning, as I was having coffe and catching up on the New Yorker fiction of the last few weeks, I finished the last story (mentally thanked the New Yorker for such good writing and good writers) and realized that I still had half a venti Starbuck's Pike Place blend left and nothing to read. I pulled out my iPod, plugged in the earbuds, and began browsing for something to fill the mood. I came across DFW's Kenyon Commencement speech and put it on.
As Dave's voice came on and the speech came to the part of You being in the exact center of everything you experience, "the law of large numbers" came back into my head. And it seemed to dovetaile (in my mind, anyway) perfectly with what DFW was saying. It was like getting X-ray vision for a moment and being able to see into that rock with the fossil and seeing, just for that moment, the entire shape of the rock and the fossil within. It was sorta like that, seeing a connection between DFW's thoughts on solipsism as a "default setting" and "the law of large numbers."
The "large numbers" seemed to me to refer to a large collection of human organisms, and by large I mean, like, millions, even hundreds of millions, maybe even billions or more. On this scale, the human mind simply cannot discern individuals, it simply overwhelms the intellect. On this scale, the collection seems almost to be an individual of its own, much like we are completely unaware of the individual cells that make up our own bodies. (I mean, yeah, I know what a cell is, but as far as one particular cell in my body, I have no clue.)
From what I was hearing from my iPod, our default setting may tend to be the conclusion, individually, that what happens to the collective happens to us, individually, that what is directed at this collective is also directed at us.
I observe that advertising is almost always universally disliked, yet advertising continues to exist. How could something universally disliked continue to exist? Advertising is still with us, I believe, because it works. It may be universally disliked on an individual level,but it works on a collective level.
Advertising works because the collection of individuals exhibits an emergent patterm of behavior of its own, like the collection is itself an individual, composed of us individual human beings who, like the cells in our own bodies, are completely unaware of the larger organism we compose. But this larger organism exhibits its own behavior and its own preferences. Advertising is merely poking and prodding this larger organism to elicit the behavior that the advertisers desire; there is no more awareness of the individual human beings composing this corpus than we have of the cells composing our own bodies. The whole point of advertising is to prod this slug of collective humanity to make it twitch in a desired way.
So it is nothing personal, this pointless, continuous blather of advertising. It really as nothing to do with you, as an individual. Advertiser are only trying to make the larger collective organism twitch in a desired direction.
Individually, our perception is that each poke and prod is directed personally at You! It is personally offensive to discover (or perceive) that one's own behavior and choices can be so easily manipulated.
Behind the emergent pattern of the collective is, in fact, numerous individual choices. Most of these choices seem to be the result of "default settings" (as DFW put it), meaning that each and every individual human being is responding to the advertising message, most of them not from conscious awareness of their choices.
As DFW points out in his speech, it is unimaginably difficult to exercise conscious choice over one's own thoughts all the time, which is probably why nearly everyone does not do it most of the time, and most people don't bother to do it at all. Imagine the change in the collective emergent pattern if they did!