The bird theorem

The bird people are slowly disappearing, year after year. How many more birds can we see? Can we just count them? It is a theological question, the writer Jorge Luis Borges mischievously explained: “I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second, maybe less. Was their number defined or not? The problem involves that of the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because God knows how many birds I saw. If God does not exist, the number is not defined, because no one has been able to count it. In this case, I saw a number of birds, say, less than ten and more than one, but I did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three or two birds. I have seen a number between ten and one, which is neither nine, nor eight, nor seven, nor six, nor five, etc. This whole number is inconceivable; therefore, God exists. » (Jorge Luis Borges, The Author and other textsGallimard).

→ CHRONICLE. Farewell, birds

If God does not exist… then God exists. But on condition of never being able to give the definite number of birds that we saw. However today, we are condemned to having to give the most definite possible number of birds because we know that they disappear and that their disappearance would then mean that we could no longer wonder about the number of the living, and that the question of the existence of God would fall of itself… We would be quite alone and deprived of any questioning. God exists as long as we can question ourselves indefinitely about the number of the living, Borges seems to say, that is to say about the mystery of his presence as number. Now there is a definite number of birds but this number today has become the alarming sign of our own distress.

We are condemned to have to count the birds we see because soon, if we do not act, we will no longer be able to count them, or so little that, no doubt, we will have to face the question of our own existence…

→ MAINTENANCE. “Our future depends on respect for the living”

Scientists are sounding the alarm. More than 600 million birds have disappeared in Europe since the 1980s (according to the recent count by BirdLife International, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Czech Ornithological Society, based on data collected between 1980 and 2017 out of 378 species of birds native to the European Union). These are not particularly rare species, but common birds, such as the house sparrow, yellow wagtail, starling and skylark. Cities and countryside are affected. The causes of this disaster are known: the development of intensive agriculture and the massive use of pesticides, the disappearance of insects, noisy and bright urbanization, the increasing pollution of the atmosphere and water, the effects of global warming. Birds have to deal with all of these factors. Many simply disappear, and others try to migrate north to continue living at a temperature that suits them. And this situation is obviously not specific to Europe, more than three billion birds have disappeared since 1979 in North America.

Let us understand the apologue well: as long as I can wonder indefinitely about the number of birds I have seen in the sky, hope is possible; but if I come to have to give a definite number of birds because their disappearance makes their “indefiniteness” impossible, hope recedes. We are preparing for ourselves a very silent world, and in which counting will no longer mean anything except to signify our own and terrifying silence. The real lesson: the number of the living must remain undefined otherwise it is our own final count that engages.


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