Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

. Thursday, November 26, 2009

A few years back, after being saved from death by a medical procedure, Daniel Dennett gave thanks for goodness:

Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say "Thank goodness!" this is not merely a euphemism for "Thank God!" (We atheists don't believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to x-ray, and so forth. These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea, India—and the United States, of course—and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other's work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others. I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who's counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.

ht to Steven Landsburg, whose excellent new blog in support of his new book The Big Questions is quickly becoming one of my favorites, who adds:

Indeed. And because the supply of thankfulness is not fixed, it will not depreciate the value of Professor Dennett’s sentiment to add a word of thanks not just for goodness but for greed—the greed that inspired generations of inventors and investors, laborers and capitalists, doctors and nurses, technicians and scientists to envision and perfect such a thing as an artificial aorta, to educate themselves in the healing professions, and to show up for work every day. For the most part, they did it to make a buck.

There is more at both links, including a call to arms from Landsburg. But the central point is important, and worth stretching: there is a lot of goodness in the world, and quite a lot of it is motivated by things less noble than altruism: it isn't charity that brought people from all over the world together to save Dennett's life, and the lives of millions of others. So today I give thanks for all the networks and spontaneous orders that allow mutually beneficial relationships to develop between people(s), and I give thanks for institutions that facilitate Pareto-improving interactions. It truly is marvelous, if you stop to think about it.


Happy Thanksgiving
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