Things of the day

Do you believe what you believe, gentle reader? This is a question I sometimes ask of gentle writer. He is fairly free with his opinions, but how many of them have been put to the test?

The tests might include empirical, “scientific” experiments, but there is no finality in them. I love “scientific method” as much as the next guy, but it is only useful for eliminating the more fatuous propositions — for demonstrating what cannot be true, which is useful enough for disposing of the rubbish. A “theory,” which is a supposition or speculation dressed up for a night on the town, may remain standing, sometimes for a century or two. Eventually it, too, will fall, to some spiffier “theory” which accounts for more phenomena; so that the last one only provided a guide towards it. “Settled science” does not exist — at least not among the scientific. It never was and never will be, except in an age like this: an age of superstition.

Notwithstanding, there are rules of thumb, “notions” if you like, that are fairly serviceable. My own notion of gravity works well enough, and has saved me from numerous deaths. The physicists know almost as little about gravity as I do, but have come up with some nice equations, that satisfy our desire for simplicity in contemplating the larger universe. These don’t come close to true understanding, however, nor could unless the connoisseurs of cause and effect take many things for granted.

That Richard Feynman (1918–88) once explained to large audiences how a conversational gambit like, “Auntie slipped on the ice and broke her hip, so she was taken to a hospital,” might pass for a reasoned statement, but it involves countless subsidiary reasonings that would take forever to explain to a Martian. For instance, what is water? why does it freeze? why is it slippery when it freezes? what is a hip? — et cetera. And this is assuming we can speak in Martian; and that the Martian is so incurious, he won’t discover that we don’t know the answer to any of these subsidiary questions, either. And just when we think the Martian has twigged, we realize that serious points have been overlooked, such as Auntie has more than one hip. How many? And why?

Our apprehension of the world, even before visiting Mars and collecting a spaceship-load of fresh ponderables, is a mulch of neglected imponderables, rotting away. Our historians, including the natural historians, can ultimately explain nothing at all. There was always more happening than they could see or record. They slither over the surface, the way one does on black ice in Parkdale, forgetting for the moment that it will disappear in spring, by a process that is implicitly supernatural.

Compare, if gentle reader will, our opinions on politics. Or economics, for I’ve met few people who begin to understand supply and demand — and that it might apply to other things than turnips. We believe, at some ripe level of abstraction, that a politician must act in a certain way, to produce a certain, predictable result. (The “fatal conceit,” as Hayek called it.) Yet such a result has never once happened.

So what is the purpose of this art, or science? The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that politics exist merely to give us something to talk about. It is a form of theatre. Those who become impassioned on the subject may forget that it is a play, or movie. All the world’s a stage, as a playwright once observed. Perhaps it is a kind of Aztec play, in which the human sacrifices are real enough, but still, the sets will be cleared off. We mount the next play as if the first had never been performed. New victims wait patiently in the wings.

I wish that instead we could get back to the more fundamental questions, such as why is ice slippery? The more one looks into it, the more humble one becomes, in the face of a world that we did not create, and where we are passing spectators.