A Puzzle to Challenge: Further Commentary


The following post concerns reflections on a challenging puzzle I posted a little over a week ago and also includes the puzzle’s solution.

If you have not tried the puzzle, I encourage you to do so by clicking here.

Secondly, the following commentary stems from a previous post which included a discussion of the puzzle’s solution. As such, I suggest reading that post before proceeding with the current. You can find that post here.


A few days ago, I posted the solution to the puzzle I put out on the blogosphere a little over a week ago in relation to an early post titled “The Doors of Perception: Only Slightly Ajar.” Here is the original puzzle and the solution:



The solution clearly engenders the “thinking outside the box” response, and rightfully so. In my initial commentary regarding the solution, however, I challenge this notion, stating, roughly, that while yes, the solution does suggest thinking outside the box, the thinking that responds as such is still a thinking defined by the box. Thus thinking outside the box is (logically) still thinking within the box.

Such, I claimed previously, has significant social, political, and economic consequences. This concern is duly increased when we consider the starting point from which these series of posts began: Mary Douglas’s claim that essentially perception (that which we see and hear, etc) are predetermined by what she calls “schema” and that which we perceive is what interests us. That which does not interest us, or challenges our interests, is ignored and/or distorted. Our very perception, then, is fundamentally limited and inherently flawed.

 While previously discussed in my last post, today I would like to concentrate on the social, political, and economic consequences of said “box thinking.”

images (2)Boxes, as we know, consist of rectangles and/or squares, two shapes which, by definition, consist of four right angles. Back in the good old Latin speaking days, a norma was a carpenter’s square, in other words, a tool used to make right angles. Norma is the root word for the English “norm” and while meaning “‘conforming to common standards, usual,’ is from 1828,” such definition is “probably older than the record [Barnhart]” (etymonline.c0m). As one can probably guess, norma is also the root for the English “normal.”

What is the point? Link the image with the term. A square (or that which is made from right angles), is the norm, is normal.

Many people just want to be normal, but no one wants to be a square right? To be called a square is no compliment. Well, thanks to our linguistic fantasy here, normal and square are basically one and the same.

Why are boxes/squares the norm? Because they are easy to stack and with boxes you can fit a lot into a nicely packed spaces. Boxes stacked upon boxes in nice little rows and columns make for a nice and tidy space–organized.

Order, and control.

When things are in their boxes they are more readily kept track of, and defined.

Our classification system is a nice little image by which to reflect upon in this discussion as scientific classification puts everything


into its nice little boxes, creating smaller (or bigger) boxes as necessary. Scientific classifications are supposed to help us define and make sense of our reality (to which I will say more below).

But what of these social, political, and economic issues as mentioned above? Our problems (both personal and collective) stem from our thinking. Our thinking is what generates our problems and it is with our thinking that we tend to try to solve our problems. Sure, we may try to think outside the box to solve a problem, but again, when we think outside the box, the box still remains and thus our thinking remains trapped inside the box. We may find something to help alleviate a problem, but as long as we address our issues with a style of thinking still tied to the box, we are essentially running around in circles. It is like taking a pill to relieve a symptom, but the symptom remains.

Several years ago I taught a class called “Globalization and Indigenous Peoples” during which we discussed (to some degree) these very issues. Each student had to research an indigenous people of their choice and “discover” that people’s root metaphor. So what is a root metaphor you might ask? Here is a good definition:

“A root metaphor or myth usually takes the form of a story about the cosmos. Although the story may be amusing or enjoyable, it also has four serious functions: to order experience by explaining the beginning of time and of history; to inform people about themselves by revealing the continuity between key events in the history of the society and the life of the individual; to illustrate a saving power in human life by demonstrating how to overcome a flaw in society or personal experience; and to provide a moral pattern for individual and community action by both negative and positive example.”

(Alan F. Segal, Rebecca’s Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World. Harvard Univ. Press, 1986)

What I have been saying is a “box” can be understood in terms of a “root metaphor” and considering the relation between the image of a square (or rectangle)  and what is considered “normal” in our society, the notion, as discussed above, in regards to the utilitarian function of boxes is instructive.

Back to the class: in researching a different culture’s root metaphors, their ways of ordering and making sense of the world, I then asked them to apply said root metaphor to their chosen social problems. The exercise was designed to get them thinking from a perspective not defined by Western or American standards–that is getting them to think outside the box, so to speak, when there was no box.

images (1)

The lesson: as long as our root metaphor remains the box, our social problems will no doubt continue in much the same way. Just look at the newspapers. Do we not see the same issues (immigration, gun control, abortion, drugs, etc) over and over and over again? Why? Because no matter what side one is on, the thinking is informed by the same thinking.

We are not numbers, so we tell ourselves.

Aren’t we though?

As long as, that is, we confine our thinking to the box. Even if we express ourselves individually, going against the norm and what is acceptable, we are still basing our mini-rebellions on what is defined as the norm, by what is acceptable.

We find the rub when we return to Mary Douglas’s quote (which prompted this series of posts).

What we consider normal, acceptable and, therefore, what is not normal and unacceptable on our perceptions which are, in turn, based upon those “schema.” As discussed above (and in relation to the brief discussion of the scientific method), the rub is exactly this: our perception is inherently flawed.

Science’s “truths” are based on observation, which is a form of perception. If perception is inherently flawed and therefore delusive, what of sceince’s “truths?” If norms and non-norms are based on perception, what of those norms? And of what is acceptable? Our descriptions of reality, our definitions of norms, and our acceptance of what is “acceptable,” are, at best, guesses, guesses of minds that are, essentially veiled from reality.


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