Chapter 16. On Call

Today as usual Kay and I went to the Y for exercise. She swims, but it’s the weight room for me. Having finished my workout, I went to the pool and found that Kay was still swimming lengths. When she spied me standing outside the viewing window, she waved with a big smile. Evidently she had not finished yet, so I sat down on a bench and waited.

All the swimmers were competent. Some made more splash than others, and some were simply beautiful to watch. Kay herself was stroking smoothly.

One staff lifeguard was standing at the far end of the pool, and another was perched on an elevated seat where she could see the whole pool and everybody in it.

A passing thought went through my mind: “What a great job to have! While people in business and industry are hard at work and swimmers here are exerting themselves, the lifeguards just sit up there or stand around.”

Suddenly there was a commotion in the alcove where the hot tub is, near the far end of the pool. The elevated lifeguard quickly climbed down and ran to the supply room. She brought emergency oxygen equipment and towels for cold compresses. An elderly woman had collapsed from staying in the hot water too long. Coolly and competently the two lifeguards proceeded to revive her. Soon they were able to help her to the dressing room.

At the end of the period, while Kay was changing, I realized that I had thoughtlessly shortchanged the responsibilities of those lifeguards. They are, after all, first-class swimmers who have taken intensive courses in lifesaving and first aid. They have to know how to deal with children and emergencies such the one they had just handled. I have seen how well they conduct aqua-fitness classes. While they appear to be merely standing around, they are actually keeping their eyes open for trouble, ready and prepared to handle it. Because those lifeguards are there, people who use the pool feel secure. “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

In the car on the way home I shared these thoughts with Kay. She pointed out that there is a whole category of persons in our society who spend hours and hours just waiting, waiting for a dangerous situation to occur that will prompt them to spring into action.

Like firefighters. Waiting for a fire alarm to come in, they don’t just pass the time playing cards or checkers. They have to learn new techniques, practice both those and the old techniques, as well as keep their equipment in top shape. When paramedics and ambulance drivers aren’t racing their vehicles through the streets with sirens blaring, they have to be ready at a moment’s notice to take off on a lifesaving mission. Even when off duty or on holidays, highly trained computer technicians often have to be “on call.” Everywhere they go, they carry beepers or cell phones by which they can be consulted or summoned to deal with urgent technical difficulties in distant institutions. If need arises at any hour of day or night, we expect doctors, nurses and emergency facilities to be available at hospitals.

In our society the speedy availability of such skilled people and their specialized equipment is deemed to be essential. When most people are asleep it’s reassuring to know that there are competent people awake and waiting, ready to cope with emergencies.


Everyone has potentially important endowments which may lie dormant until they are called out. In some crisis situation the personal presence and skills of any human being, though undisplayed in ordinary circumstances, may contribute exactly what is needed to resolve a serious problem. Discovering and bringing out the latent capabilities of students is a never-ending source of excitement and satisfaction for educators.

All things – not just people – also have potentialities which can be discovered and brought out. The first humans knew that air is necessary for breathing, that moving air cools hot bodies and that hot air warms cold bodies. In time, however, people learned that moving air can also drive a sailing vessel to a distant destination. Air under pressure in rubber tires can make traveling over a bumpy road more comfortable. Air which seems so light and yielding can support the tonnage of an airliner in flight.

In ancient times copper was used for bronze weapons, armor and mirrors. Many centuries passed before copper was found to be also a good conductor of electrical current – a discovery that turned lights on all over the world and enabled people to talk to each other at great distances over telephone wires.

We can never be sure that we know absolutely everything that any given substance or process can do. Hidden potentialities may show up only when they are called forth “accidentally” by special circumstances. In some respects everything is what engineers refer to as a “black box” – a complicated unit whose internal functions are presently hidden and unknown, but whose nature and contents may be partially disclosed by its response to a variety of inputs from outside.

In physical chemistry, the characteristics of substances and their combinations are studied, as well as means of transforming them. Through a variety of tests chemists can parse out such “properties” of substances as color, taste, solubility, density, elasticity, reaction rate, electrical conductivity, phase change temperature and emission spectrum. Materials may thus be identified and classified according to their properties. Tests also yield clues concerning atomic structures and, therefore, possible chemical interactions.

Modern chemists find that the properties of substances can best be correlated and interpreted on the basis of interatomic bonding and intermolecular forces. However we still tend to use terms inherited from the beginnings of science. People still think they have said something significant about a substance when they speak about its “nature.” But what is a nature? Where would one look inside anything to find the stock of potentialities that constitute its nature? No answer. A thing’s nature is its tendency or disposition to behave in a certain way when it becomes actively involved with something else. Its nature consists of its potentialities: what can be expected from it under specific conditions in certain relationships.

Placing something in relation to something which interacts with it can call out some of its potentialities. When your tongue touches salt, you recognize the substance by its taste. All by itself any musical instrument is soundless. If however it is struck, plucked, bowed, blown, shaken or otherwise vibrated by someone, some of its characteristic sound qualities will be heard. A musical sound is emitted by a musical instrument only after a relating action has awakened its dormant potentialities. When things meet or combine with each other or include or incorporate other things, hidden potentialities may be disclosed.

During the last two centuries advances in communication technology have captivated human attention. A succession of new relating techniques has brought forth printing, telegraphy, telephones, photography, motion pictures, X-rays, radios, television, radar, sonar, computers, electron microscopes, CT-scanners and MRI. These plus a host of land, water, air and space vehicles have incredibly multiplied our ways of relating to other things and people.

Most of the materials used to construct these new inventions have existed as long as Earth itself, but until modern times no one had discovered their potentialities. When those ancient substances were worked up into different forms and put together in innovative ways, some of their hitherto unrecognized potentialities came to light. Relatings are creative. They can call out previously unrecognized potentialities from already-existing materials and people.

Relatings call forth potentialities

When two or more components are related in an interacting way, a new thing called a “system” comes into being. In a system, the whole is always more than the sum of the parts. This is to say that when parts are fitted to other parts, the relatings will bring out formerly inoperative potentialities. The unanticipated appearance of novel features in such relatings is called “emergence” or “the composition effect.”

As mentioned earlier, when I put three straight-line segments together to form a triangle, I suddenly have a single planar unit, an enclosed figure with inside space, outside space, an area, three angles. The original simple lines are still there, but where did all those additional features come from? Bringing each line into relation with the other two was what did the trick.

The words you have been reading are printed in a book which consists of paper, ink and glue. From that collection of materials, you, the reader may derive new thoughts which are not substances of any kind. Black squiggles printed on the paper somehow brought new ideas to your mind. At least the potentialities of those thoughts must have been concealed in your head. They certainly were not embodied in the ink, for no ink cartridges contain a store of either wisdom or nonsense.

New meanings and implications may leap into your consciousness from the order in which the letters, words and numbers were printed. The order is more than the symbols, and by no means less important. A particular order of letters or words corresponds to a mental concept or a description of things to be perceived. When letters, words or sentences have been related to each other in a certain order, new mental concepts or ideas can emerge in a reader’s mind.

Consider music. When a series of notes is sounded in a regular pattern of timing, a “melody” mysteriously emerges. The melody has a relational life of its own, over and above the notes which were sounded. The same melody can be played in other keys using quite different sets of notes, but in the same relationship Havoc is created if a recorded melody is played backward: the notes are all there but the order which created the emergent melody is no longer there.

When two or more things come together, new things can emerge. Two voices can sing harmony. A bird with only one wing can’t fly. Together a male and a female animal can produce offspring.

Emergent phenomena also occur in the strictly physical realm. Hydrogen and oxygen are gases. If a spark or flame is added to a mixture of the two, the resulting explosion suddenly emits heat and light while producing a liquid – water. Just a touch of thermal activity completely changes the relationship.

At their looms, weavers run long warp threads through pedal-operated heddles. This arrangement enables them to raise different “sheds” of thread. Shuttles carrying woof threads can be shot through those sheds. When pedals, heddles and shuttles manipulate variously colored warp and woof threads in carefully related sequences, a patterned spread of cloth will emerge – something very different from mere threads, loom parts or weavers.

Left to themselves, the parts of an aircraft cannot fly. But if those parts are put together in a certain form, the aircraft can fly. Flat steel plates will not float, but if those plates are warped, riveted and welded into a ship-shaped formation, that iron ship can float. Forming, composing and relating can bring out remarkable potentialities.

Each set of new relationships can evoke new potentialities. Mount a set of two wheels under one end of an oblong box. Add handles and it becomes a wheelbarrow or handcart. Mount an additional set of wheels under the other end and you have a wagon. Change the handles into shafts and the wagon becomes a rickshaw or horse-drawn vehicle. Removing the shafts and installing an engine will transform the horseless carriage into an automobile. Add a propeller and wings and the car becomes an aircraft. With a rocket engine, the flying machine can serve as a spacecraft. Equipped with remote controls and ingenious sensing devices the spacecraft becomes a space probe capable of exploring the whole solar system. Some wheelbarrow!

When something is up in the air, because it seems to be all by itself, some people think of it in its isolation as possessing potential energy. Potential energy, however, is a systemic phenomenon. The potential energy of a wheel which has fallen off an aircraft in flight cannot be ascribed separately to either the wheel or to Earth. It is a joint property of the wheel/Earth system.

Potentialities have never resided in single things. That’s why nobody has ever found them hidden away inside anything. Potentialities emerge only after one thing relates to something else in a new and particular way. Potentiality is a systems phenomenon. When two things are relating, a new system can emerge.

Time and potentiality

The existence of a “potentiality” is hard to presume until it has been called out by circumstances. Until that denouement, a potentiality must be unrecognized. Anyone seeing an acorn for the first time wouldn’t likely see in it the potentiality of becoming a great tree, let alone a forest, a beautiful piece of furniture or a sailing ship exploring uncharted waters. These developments can happen, however, if the acorn should get put into moist ground.

In traditional logic the very conception of a potentiality is a misfit. Clear rational thinking requires that at any given time a thing must either exist or not exist – it cannot both exist and not exist at the same time. Unrecognized potential, though, is real enough. It somehow exists even though it is not yet actually making any visible or tangible difference and therefore cannot be said to exist. This situation is logically difficult. A certain person may be a potential teacher and yet be a kindergarten child sound asleep – in two different categories at the same time. The logic which applies to things that are seen to exist apparently does not apply in the same way to potentialities, whose existence (or subsistence) can become obvious only if its circumstantial relations change with time.

A lifelong city dweller might not be able to recognize a legless tadpole as a potential frog. A pollywog swims with its tail and never ventures out of the water. Nevertheless with time, food and a favorable environment, the pollywog can mature into a tailless frog capable of spectacular hops and expeditions on land. Similarly a loathsome, crawling caterpillar may be potentially a beautiful butterfly or a moth capable of flying long distances. With time and changed relations surprising things can happen.

In about nine months after a sperm cell has united with an ovum, if the fertilized egg has been lodged in a warm and nourishing environment, that “simple” union can develop into a complexly organized human infant. The way such a feat is accomplished is completely mind-boggling. The growth process by which a small and helpless baby through the years becomes a strong and capable adult remains equally inscrutable. No one really knows how the dead foodstuffs which a mother swallowed became related in systemically organized ways so as to produce a living child.

Who can tell the number of potentialities which may be called out of anything? All of those potentialities cannot become actual forms at once. Time lays strict limits upon what can be actualized when. We can speak only one syllable or word at a time. We cannot enjoy all possible satisfactions at once. Time will always deny us certain fulfillments. History can record only those potentialities which have already emerged. The story of any life, family, nation or culture might have been vastly different if certain potential developments had appeared earlier or later than they actually did.

Potentialities and creation

Potentialities have been understood in two different ways. The old way conceived potentialities as latent properties originally resident within things. Circumstances and conditions would call them forth. The new way sees them as systemic properties which emerge when components relate to each other in certain ways.

But when separate things relate to each other, is each not playing the role of a circumstance or condition to the others? The notion of a latent potentiality is appropriate in a description of how things were before they came together. Considering potentiality as an emergent systemic property is appropriate only after relating has happened. The two approaches to potentiality are based on two different stances with respect to time.

Older thinking usually claimed that the Creator endows each kind of thing with its “nature” – its peculiar set of properties and potentialities. In recent science, however, the role of God is commonly played by a vague, general agency called “Mother Nature.” The potentiality for all future developments is assumed to have resided in the beginning moment of the universe. The total amount of energy, the primal masses of interacting particles, their initial conditions, the speed of light, the numerical values of all kinds of constants and the laws of nature are regarded as being sufficient to explain everything that has happened and will happen since the beginning.

In traditional thought, among the substances which the Creator brought into being from nothing were the pigments used by artists. Theologians generally insisted that God had a complete monopoly on the activity of creating. They held that, in painting a picture, an artist was not really “creating” something, but was just rearranging particles of colorful substances which God had created.

Painting, however, is much more than spreading particles of pigment. When each particular particle has been applied to a canvas, it occupies a unique position in a configuration which never before appeared in this world. Each original painting is thus a first-time, absolutely novel, singular organization of materials. When painting, the artist can properly be said to be at least participating in a process of creating: the sequential creating of unique, particular patterns of relations between pigment particles, brush strokes and patches of color – patterns which never existed in exactly that way ever before.

When theologians confine the notion of creation exclusively to the long-ago, first-time origination of the material universe, they unwittingly become allies of atheistic materialists who focus on substances and things rather than upon the relations between them. By concentrating on the original creation of primal matter and overlooking contemporary relatings which are presently bringing to light some of the potentialities of the material world, they are missing out on an opportunity to bind theological significance to the ongoing drama of time and culture.

As time goes on, potentialities are always being called out of the universe, both here and out there in the farthest reaches of space. We have noted that potentialities are called out of previously existing things by the active presence of “something else.” On a small scale, when combining, relating components and their circumstances may produce emergent developments. On the cosmic scale, however, what can fill the role of the requisite something else which has been reshaping the whole universe since its beginning? To me it makes good sense to believe that only an everlasting divine Creator could keep calling forth everywhere and always the vast torrent of potentialities which constitutes the cosmic time-process.

In the absence of any other satisfactory explanation, it seems reasonable to believe that a transcendent initiating Source created the universe’s original matter and energy. Surely it is just as reasonable to believe that the same Source is responsible for the ongoing creation of the host of new relatings that keep emerging with time.

When we first recognize that a certain surprising emergence has happened, it seems like magic or miracle. If that emergence occurs again and again when certain relatings are repeated, we soon come to simply expect what will happen. The “magic” disappears when we have given a name to that phenomenon and formulated a fitting “law” which seems to govern such occurrences. What a shame that our sense of wonder so easily sags into scientific smugness!

Perhaps the rationale of the whole process of time is that the Creator is seeking to unfold the full extent to which creativity can go.

It takes a great deal more credulity than I possess to believe that this astonishing world has been and is developing by mere chance and “do-it-yourself” processes. To me it makes better sense to give, in the words of that old hymn by Bridges and Thring, appropriate acknowledgment to

… the Lord of years,
            the Potentate of time,
Creator of the rolling spheres,
            ineffably sublime.

Looking back, we would sometimes like to have realized in advance how things could come to be the way they are now. As a new millennium begins, glancing back over the ages through which the world has already come, we wonder toward what future the whole time-process is headed. In this shifting world, progressive concepts such as development, potentiality, actualizing, emergence and creativity help us temporarily to feel a little more trustful and secure, even though our comprehension of time is so speculative. Hope is a cousin of potentiality.