Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Sorcerer and the Squid

nce upon a time there was a sorcerer named Nobu, who travelled from town to town claiming to send messages to the gods... for a small fee. One day when he entered a remote fishing village, he discovered that everyone was dressed in black to mourn the death of a boy named Kenji, who was beloved by all the villagers. Kenji made friends easily, always offered to help the neighbors with their chores, and was shaping up to be the best fisherman in the village. But he had fallen ill a few weeks earlier, and while the local doctor had done the best he could, none of his treatments were effective. Kenji had been buried only that morning.

As the villagers crowded around the grave, Nobu put a consoling hand on the shoulder of Kenji's mother and announced, "I am a powerful sorcerer, and I shall intercede for you and ask the gods to restore this boy to life... for a small fee."

Excited murmurs rippled through the crowd. "You would do that for me? For us?" said the mother, a renewed stream of tears running down her face.

Nobu grinned a brown-toothed grin. "But of course. There is no guarantee that they will grant your request, but I will be happy to speak to them for you. Now, there's just the matter of my fee..."

"Wait!" said a girl pushing her way through the mass of people. Ai had been a close companion of Kenji's before his illness. When he returned in late morning from his fishing excursions, Ai would often be waiting for him at the dock. "How do we know this man has any special power? If only he can talk to the gods, how can we tell whether they're really talking back?"

"A very wise girl!" said Nobu. "I will prove to you that I can use my magic to communicate with the gods. You there! Fishermen! Did any of you catch any squid this morning?"

"Of course," said one.

"Then let me take one to demonstrate my power, for the gods are far more generous with squids than with men. If I cannot return it to life, I'll repay you for it tenfold and be on my way."

A few minutes later they gathered in a nearby house. A half-dead squid in a wooden bowl wriggled one tentacle feebly until a fisherman brusquely chopped off its head. With the crowd watching eagerly, the sorcerer placed his hands over the bowl and muttered an incantation. Then he reached into his satchel and took out a bottle of dark brown liquid. "O great gods of the ocean, hear my plea," he intoned. "Return this spirit to the land of the living."

As he poured the potion over the tentacles, the squid sprang to life, writhing and squirming so violently that it nearly fell out of the bowl. The crowd gasped, taking a collective step backwards. "You see?" said Nobu. "My power is strong."

This was proof enough for everyone. The gods must have heard Nobu's entreaty—how else could such a miracle occur? And so the next day everyone gathered at Kenji's grave. Nobu recited his incantations and poured his dark elixir over the freshly packed ground. "O great gods of the earth, return this spirit to the land of the living."

The villagers waited restlessly, but nothing happened. All the while Nobu's eyes were closed, his hands outstretched, his mouth moving silently. Finally he opened his eyes and addressed the crowd. "The gods in their wisdom have not seen fit to raise Kenji from the dead for now. But there is good news!" he said with a smile, his stained teeth glinting dully in the sun. "They have told me that they wish to prolong his absence to make you more fully appreciate him when he returns."

His audience mumbled approvingly. They were a bit disappointed, but then, who were they to question the judgment of the gods? For most, it was enough to know that Kenji would come back eventually. But not for Ai.

"Doesn't this seem a little convenient?" she asked the crowd. "Kenji is still dead and gone, Nobu leaves with a hefty reward, and everyone is satisfied with that?"

"Now, dear, we mustn't be ungrateful," said Kenji's mother. "This man has clearly spoken to the gods, and their wisdom is far beyond what we could ever hope to grasp."

"But what if that business with the squid was just a trick?" Ai insisted. "All he would have to do is create one illusion, and he could have us all convinced without any way of knowing if what he says is true!"

A fisherman grunted in objection. "Stop talking nonsense, Ai. What illusionist could possibly bring dead creatures to life? Do you think he had that squid dancing with invisible strings?"

"I don't know how he could have done it," said Ai. "But that doesn't mean that it was the work of the gods."

"Hmph. Unless you have some other explanation, what business do you have criticizing this man's sacred work?" Several other villagers murmured their agreement, then set about dividing the burden of Nobu's payment amongst themselves. Nobu's pack was filled with silver coins and enough fresh fish and other provisions to last a week.

Nobu smiled one last time. "I will visit your village again next year. Perhaps that will be long enough."

And so the next year, Nobu returned and (for another small fee) prayed to the gods on the villagers' behalf. When nothing happened, he returned the next year, and for many years after that. When the villagers tired of waiting, Nobu would find a new trick to perform, or pronounce the gods angry at their impatience. Meanwhile, Ai slowly grew frustrated at her village's credulity. When she was grown, she set out in search of another village to call home.

*       *       *

While this story was fiction, Nobu's trick is quite real—in fact, it's actually the centerpiece of a Japanese dish called odori-don, or "dancing squid rice bowl." We might better know the sorcerer's dark brown potion as soy sauce, which if poured over a freshly killed squid really will cause it to move around:

Yes, it really is dead, and the brain has nothing to do with the reaction: the same phenomenon can be observed with frog legsIt wouldn't be at all surprising if people once attributed these eerie occurrences to a magical force. When something that should be dead suddenly gets up and starts moving, it certainly looks as though its spirit has returned to its body. It also wouldn't be surprising to see people scoff at those who object to a supernatural explanation without providing a natural one: this is a classic argument from ignorance, or more specifically, the god of the gaps fallacy.

It was not until the mid-19th century that we would even begin to understand this phenomenon. In 1848, Emil du Bois-Reymond discovered the action potential: the rapid change in electrical charge that constitutes neural firing. In 1902, Julius Berstein hypothesized that this was caused by a change in the flow of ions across the cell membrane. Finally, in 1957 Danish chemist Jans Christian Skou discovered sodium-potassium pumps, which maintain a charge of about –70 millivolts by pumping sodium ions out and potassium ions in. When soy sauce is poured on the squid, sodium ions from the salt flow into its neurons, lessening the charge. When that charge reaches about –55 millivolts, it creates an action potential: the neurons fire, causing the squid's muscles to contract.

It took many brilliant scientists working in harmony arrive at this conclusion, and for most of human history this naturalistic explanation would be many centuries away. The villagers in this tale and their descendants—dozens of generations—could have lived and died before this complex biochemical mechanism was finally uncovered. This is why posing the supernatural as an explanation is misguided even if it seems that science will never be able to explain a phenomenon, and even if that phenomenon really looks supernatural. We don't need to have a naturalistic explanation to know that a vague and vacuous panacea, advanced without any positive evidence, is no explanation at all.

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