Nothing Occurs in a Vacuum


[Letter December 16, 1952]

I have been hobnobbing with the Navahos again: they have a remarkable insight into many things and that without the slightest trace of mysticism. One old Navajo gave me a very enlightening discourse on how they predict the weather, confirming the theory of the thing by a meticulously accurate prediction of the weather for the coming month – it came exactly as he prescribed. The secret of the thing is simply the first rule of the old Babylonian science: nothing occurs in a vacuum but all that happens is influenced by everything else – there is not just one clue to the weather, there are thousands, and when a general agreement becomes evident among only a dozen or so of these, e.g. the shape and height of the moon at rising, the state of the feathers on certain birds, the feel of some polished metal, the smell of the wind, etc. one can be absolutely certain of the predominant state of things as preconditioning certain states to follow. It never has failed, say the Indians, but the crazy white man with a battery of instruments and a bundle of charts makes very bad predictions (about 30% correct for Salt Lake Weather) because he is analytic instead of synthetic in his approach – he thinks it better to get a graduated reading of one single phenomenon than to respond to anything as vague as a general feeling for the whole situation. The wiser Indians are convinced that our science is shallow because of the shallow nature of our talk and our behavior: how can such people ever know what is really behind things? they ask. You may answer that.



About Hugh Nibley

Hugh Nibley, 1910-2005, was simultaneously the LDS Church's greatest intellectual defender from attack from the outside and Mormon culture's strongest critic from the inside. This blog is composed mainly from Nibley's unpublished writings, letters, interviews and conversations, with occasional posts from associates who had personal interactions with him.
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3 Responses to Nothing Occurs in a Vacuum

  1. Don Nielsen says:

    Having hazarded your “guess” Mr. Carroll, why not go ahead and “systematically and objectively compare[] the two approaches” and see what the data actually indicate? I would like to see such before cavalierly dismissing Nibley’s insightful comments on the subject. I’m no meteriologist, but did take a course in it in college, and seem to recall that the famous Farmer’s Almanac relies for its well-known success on intuition/tradition, as well as, science, and historically relied disproportionately on the former prior to the advent and improvement of the latter.

    • Joy Bischoff says:

      Brother Nielsen, thank you for your comment. I couldn’t agree more. It never ceases to amaze me how modern man dismisses most ancient wisdom, insisting that we are superior in almost every way. A blend of ancient lore with the wonders of modern technology would certainly garner better results.

  2. Of course, as a machine learning/statistician, the problem that I see with the Indian’s approach mentioned here is that you are surely prone to overfit, and find false correlations if you include so many features in your feature set. In which case, it wouldn’t actually work better, and anecdotes don’t show that it actually works better. And my guess is that it actually works much worse if you systematically and objectively compared the two approaches.

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