Humility and the scientific method

In the Fall of 1990, on a whim of the gods, I was in Tunisia, touring the ruins of ancient Roman colonies with some Italian students.  Saddam Hussein had just decided to reclaim Kuwait (believe it or not, he had some historical precedent) and the long litany of dares and double-dares had begun.  Most of the Arab speaking world backed Saddam in this, albeit halfheartedly, because they thought of Kuwaitis as selfish and spoiled.  Poor people rarely like rich people.

In any event, Americans, such as myself, were viewed warily, especially unusual ones.  First of all, I stood literally head and shoulders above most of the population.  Secondly, I was traveling with Italians, and it was clear that I spoke Italian.  Everyone knows Americans don’t speak Italian unless they’re up to no good.  It was obvious to discerning Tunisians that I was a CIA operative, in Tunisia during the Gulf crisis to – what?  The fact that no one could imagine what such a person might be up to there only confirmed their suspicions.  Lucky for me, they are, for the most part, a gentle and amicable people, but it did take awhile to get accustomed to knowing smiles and the occasional glare.

All things considered, I was left a bit dubious of the critical thinking skills of the hoi polloi.  And so it happened that, on a break from run-down Roman baths and fora. we visited Douz, once the fabled trailhead for Timbuktu and points beyond, nowadays a hive of hucksters and tourists longing for a one or two hour Lawrence of Arabia experience.  Typically, one wanders out into the Sahara on a camel led by a guide on foot, has lunch, and returns for an extended photo op.  I thought the camel ride seemed pointless, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching the friendly clash of cultures.

Suddenly, my pondering was interrupted by the loud and repeated braying of a camel.  Camels, of course, are among the rudest animals humans associate themselves with, but this outburst had an unusual urgency about it.  I looked over and saw that four or five men had wrestled a camel to the ground, and were holding it down.  Nearby, a wood fire burned, with a long iron rod reddening in the heat.  I walked over and asked one of the camel drivers standing nearby what on earth was going on.

“Ah,” he said, “this camel refuses to eat.  He will die soon, unless something is done.”

As he said this, a man pulled the iron, now white hot, out of the fire, walked over to the prostrate beast, and began searing three parallel lines on the animal’s throat.

“This will make him hungry, and he will eat, and all will be well,” my new friend cheerfully informed me.

Poor benighted bastards, I thought.  If only they had access to modern veterinary practice, instead of relying on this absurd medieval ritual!  I wondered what they would do when they realized this wasn’t working, maybe exorcise demons?  The men concluded their torture and let the camel stand on its own.

Whereupon it immediately walked over to a clump of grass, and began enthusiastically devouring it.

Life, knowing, and history

In my rather odd life, I have most recently been a professor, of what, I won’t say; it could be part of a conspiracy.  I have, however, taught history, a subject I never studied beyond high school.  You think that’s strange?  I think it’s typical of Academe.  There is a pervasive but deeply buried assumption among the professorate that anyone smart enough to earn a doctorate can teach any subject.  Believe me, it is entirely unwarranted, and bespeaks only the remanent arrogance of a life once restricted to the aristocracy.  If I ever begin to succumb to this delusion, I need only to look in the mirror.  All the same, I think that in time, I became an adequate teacher of history, although there doubtless remain some perfectly competent individuals out there who believe the most preposterous things on my account.

What is history, anyway?  That’s a question that has sent alternating waves of apprehension and boredom through countless classrooms.  Little did my students suspect that, initially, at least, I asked it partly in hopes of finding out, myself.  Too bad for me.  Mostly I heard it was a narrative of the important things that have happened in the past, and that our version of it was objective, while theirs was biased, or vice-versa, for budding politicos.

Objectivity, of course, is impossible, if only because it implies a thoroughness that would take longer to describe by several orders of magnitude than the events themselves took to occur.  Write an objective account, if you can, of everything that has happened in your neighborhood while you were reading this blog.  Just your neighborhood.  Don’t leave anything out because you think it’s unimportant; that would be bias, and be careful to hide your opinion of it.  Don’t forget the pigeons, either, or the cockroaches.  Even if you intend to write only the history of humans in your neighborhood, they might well have a bearing on that.  Then there are all those minute occurrences of which you are utterly unaware.  Fall a bit short, did you?  Try for the entire world since the dawn of agriculture some 12,000 years ago.

Just that fact alone, that you can’t write all of it, dooms any semblance of real objectivity.  What to leave out?

So why do people keep on about it?  What do they mean when they say something is “objective?”  Non-historians generally mean it’s agreeable to them, it fits their world view.  Historians tend to avoid the subject, but what passes for objectivity among them is consensus.  Don’t let them tell you otherwise; all that citation and vetting of primary sources is nothing more than an attempt to arrive at what the consensus was at the time of the occurrence they happen to be writing about.  Occasionally, someone does stray from the pack.  Maybe a new source is uncovered, or a discredited one is taken at face value.  In that case a process begins to either expel or integrate the upstart view, so as to preserve the appearance of objectivity.  Rarely does it occur to anyone that seemingly contradictory accounts may. in fact, be legitimate from differing points of view.  We, historians and otherwise, are obsessed with what really happened, as if everyone involve had the same stake in the outcome.

Please don’t confuse this with the increasingly common view that any opinion is as good as the next!  This is another difficult point for some people: an opinion can be dead wrong, even ridiculous.  I often hear that all opinions have the right to be heard.  Opinions have no rights, friends.

So, what do these opposite approaches have in common?  Both seem to make life easier.  In neither case is it necessary to think too much.  Consensus is no guarantee of accuracy, and relativism just despairs of it.  They each in their own way avoid the disturbing conclusion that history is a subjective review of the past, that may be plausible, true, false, or all of the above, depending on where you stand.  Know where you stand, but also where others stand, and you may find history endlessly fascinating.  Perhaps even useful.

Enlightenment and other illusions

Shall we live in the moment?  It’s possible, of course, to do it, but we cannot experience it.  Just from the sheer physics of it: something happens, and it takes some time – not much, but some – for the data to physically reach our senses.  Not even light is instantaneous.  Then a signal has to travel from the outer shell to the brain.  By the time we’re aware of it, it’s over.  Only those unfortunate few who are technically alive, but in a persistent vegetative state may be living in the moment.  Even then, it’s possible we’re missing some signal or other being sent out of that quiescent skull into the room, the hospice, the eternal vastness beyond, missing that faint tapping on the inner bone that indicates a thing is living in there.  As for what it’s like in that locked room, that’s a subject to be set aside for later perusal.

Right. Technically we can’t live in the present.  But awareness cannot exist without memory, even from a subjective point of view.  When you see a face, what you’re getting is a pelting stream of photons, constantly changing; you have to supply the meaning.  There’s a story of a congenitally blind man who, through surgery, was able to see for the first time.  He described it as an onslaught of totally unfamiliar data.  He could only identify what must have been his wife’s face because the sound of her voice seemed to be coming from it.  She was neither beautiful nor ugly, just disturbing; it was, indeed, hard to tell where the face ended, and its surroundings began.  It was bewildering.  Ultimately, he became blind again, but not from any physical cause.  He simply couldn’t deal with the odd new sensations.

Imagine all your senses like that: vibrating ear drums, tingling skin, chemical eruptions in the nasal passages, all prompting a deluge of neuronal activity, incomprehensible because never before experienced, yet unavoidable.  We only know what these things mean because we live in the past.

Okay, sure, you say, we need a bit of the past, but surely we can avoid the future.

Can we, now?   Let’s plan on it.

A letter to the Director

To Mr. Benjamin Flitworthy, Director

Dear Mr. Flitworthy

I find your proposal to be ludicrous to the point of madness.  It causes me, indeed, to question your sincerity in pursuing this transaction.  To my knowledge, it has never been observed, nor yet postulated, that, as you suggested, pigs might fly.

Yours, Sir Nigel Blagh

The nature of nature

You’re a nature lover; you find it revitalizes you, sweeps away the cobwebs (never mind the natural nature of cobwebs).  Alright, then!  Where to find it?

Perhaps you like to leave the city behind, get out where the air seems fresh.  Climb the mountain that refused Mohammad, go on a surfin’ safari, that sort of thing.  The thing is, all this artificiality gets you down, bro.  I mean like, wires, concrete, dump trucks, horns .. it just makes your head hurt.  Well, okay, not literally, most of the time, but it’s bad for the soul, right?  It’s not right, right?  It’s .. we’ve screwed it all up, the ecosystem, and we need to get back to..

To what?  The Ecosystem, the grand, immutable, capitalized Ecosystem?  Which one was that?  A hundred years ago?  Two seconds ago?  It’s a dynamic system, meaning there is no ecosystem to get back to, because we’re in it.  Now.  Maybe you don’t like it right now; that’s another issue.

The whole distinction between nature and artifice is wrong.  A Massey-Ferguson combine is no less natural than the stripped-down twig used by a bonobo to get at termites.  The mound built by the termites is the same, in essence, as the Sears Tower.  The differences we see are matters of degree, not kind.

Does that mean I don’t believe there’s an environmental crisis?  Not at all.  But it’s not Mother Nature that’s in danger.  It’s humanity, one of her least understood offspring.  The Earth doesn’t need saving; it will be just as fine as barren, acid-scarred rock as it is covered with what amounts to a thin slime of life.  Does Venus complain?  Does Mars feel inferior?  Who really cares about the current state of a lump of matter in the great nowhere?

Well, we do, because we care about the existence, or not, of our kind.  We mourn the passing of creatures we’ve never seen precisely because we might be next; we show no such compassion  for those closer to us: mice, cockroaches, wasps.  But these, too, are our kind, our mushy, pushy, boisterous, gustatory kind: living beings.

I see the value of greenery and what we call wildlife.  We’re changing our circumstances much faster than we evolve.  That’s our nature, after all.  It’s just that we don’t have much of a chance at surviving it all if we insist on seeing ourselves as apart from it all.

You want nature?  Look around you.  Cars.  Trees. Mountains.  Molehills.  Look inside that fortress skull in which you think you live.  That mushy gray stuff is as natural as sunsets and gamma radiation.