Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Psychotic Episode, No.34, Vol.3

The Easter Bunny and His Friends

The world can be strange and confusing place, populated with all manner of non-existing "things". It may well be that most of what we so casually refer to as real, is merely a linguistic convention. We may know that what we are talking about does not actually exist but we talk about it anyway simply so we have something to talk about. I think myths are like that. We intend them to be explanatory in some way, to inform or enlighten yet without taking the myth itself seriously. Even so, we get confused sometimes and forget that the myth is only a means to some other end.

I could, for instance, talk at great length and in excruciating detail about Unicorns as if they actually existed. In fact there people who have written entire books on just that. Yet I know that I'm talking about something that does not exist and probably never has. The non-existence of "things" is no real impediment to conversation and certainly not to scholarship. Yet there are those who will understand a Unicorn as not only a symbol of something else, but as having actual existence, if not now then in some long lost Golden Age at the beginning of time. I kind of like the imagery. It describes a world that I would enjoy far more than this one and it would be so much easier to determine the rightness and wrongness of things. Alas, the universe is supremely indifferent to what I like. The imagery is all I can have.

While I feign a kind of superiority here, as if I, at least, am above being seduced by my delusions, I don't believe it. I am just as tempted as anyone else by the lure of a perfect world and the strength of my desire for escape is powerful. It's just that I've become cynical. I can't let myself believe in much of anything however much I want to. It's an odd dichotomy: on the one hand I know that most of what I most want to believe is just frivolous nonsense and, on the other, the desire to believe is a deep compulsion of great power. If little kids can do it, why can't I?

I think I like the idea that dragons are really a dim memory of dinosaurs but I'm told that the great beasts were exinct long before there were people to fear them. Being familiar with the arguments put forth for that view, I can find enough holes to at least admit the possibility of our co-extence with the Thunder Lizards. Besides, it's enjoyable to imagine a world that is incredibly alien and strange.

Did our most ancient ancestors just make stuff up to amuse themselves or were their tales a clumsy attempt to descibe their reality? If these first humans were truly human then they would have possessed the same raw intelligence as humans today and that would imply that they were capable of thought. If reason is a necessary component of thought, they must surely have understood the difference between empirical reality and mere fantasy. In fact, inventing strangeness and fear in their intellectual landscape would be counter productive; the world would have been scary enough without making stuff up.

While I remain mostly cynical and am skeptical of every assertion of every kind about everything, I still enjoy the possibility that the certainty we are so certain about may be yet another self-delusion. Our smug pretense of knowledge may nothing more than our remedy for a fear of the unknown. Wrapped in our security blanket of omniscience, we whistle in the dark, hoping the dark doesn't whistle back.

Most of what we claim to be certain of is a transitory mythology. We hold some description of events and things to be "true" for a while and then we move on to some other, more complete description. The old descriptions influence us in our decisions and then are replaced by new ones and forgotten. We then adapt the decisions made on "flawed data" of the earlier description to agree with the new, improved descriptions. Our mythology is in constant flux and can't endure for even a single generation. If we stumbled across an Absolute Truth we wouldn't have to resort to mythology at all but the fact that facts are infinitely malleable ensures that there will always be myths. Myths fill in the gaps and provide explanations until replaced by an upgraded version. Not a very stable trajectory for an increase in knowledge.

The reason I mention all this is not to diminish your confidence in the knowledge you believe you have acquired; that knowledge is real after all. The point is that the "things" we think we know may not exist so that knowing about them doesn't gain us much. Additionally, our knowledge is mostly about what others have said about what they think they know. The knowledge we claim to possess is not even our own and is so far removed from the object of study that we are wholly dependent on the competence and integrity of the original investigators. We have to believe someone else to tell us what is real. We have to trust the whole apparatus of education and have faith in those who teach us. This seems like fertile ground for the creation of imaginative myth and empty knowledge. While your knowledge does really exist, it may well be without empirical content.

To Go Back, Click Here

Perfected Ignorance

Why is it So Hard To Know stuff?

I was looking up a number in the phone book the other day and someone said, "The names are in alphabetical order so Mumwat Hennel will be under H". Man, I'd been starting at the beginning of the phone book and working my way through for two weeks trying to find this guy. Suddenly I realized why nothing I'd learned made any sense. Alphabetical order! What an incredibly perverse way to to present information.

I had assumed that information was supposed to be sequential, one fact leading to another in a nice tidy progression. I mean that's the way the other books I've read were written. Except for the Encyclopedia of course. Now there's one book (26 actually) that nearly made me despair of ever learning anything. Now it all makes sense, it's in alphabetical order! I spent three years reading an entire 26 volume encyclopedia thinking it was revealing knowledge in some really strange sequence. I figured that I'd eventually discover whatever magical code was secretly embedded in all those apparently random articles.

a cappella:
(Italian: "in the church style"), performance of a polyphonic (multipart) musical work by unaccompanied voices. Originally referring to sacred choral music, the term now refers to secular music as well.

The a cappella style arose about the time of the composer Josquin des Prez, in the late 15th century, and reached preeminence with Palestrina in the late 16th century in the music ...

Followed by:

a lo divino:
(Spanish "in the sacred style" or "in sacred terms") in Spanish literature, the recasting of a secular work as a religious work, or, more generally, a treatment of a secular theme in religious terms through the use of allegory, symbolism, and metaphor. Adaptations a lo divino were popular during the Golden Age of Spanish literature during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Now so far I could believe the first volume of the encyclopedia was going to reveal some kind of religious Truth. But then comes:

a posteriori knowledge:
knowledge derived from experience, as opposed to a priori knowledge (q.v.).

And it gets worse:

a priori knowledge

A'sha, al-
A-erh-chin Mountains
Aakj‘r, Jeppe
Aare River

I read volume one and kept on going believing I would find some deep meaning in the bazarre ordering of apparent non sequiturs. I think that explains why I can't maintain a conversation for more than the time it takes to read two paragraphs. Why would the people in whom we have entrusted with all human knowledge devise such a cruel decpetion? Why would they force us to jump from here to there and back again to learn even the simplest detail? Could it be that they are laughing at our credulity the whole time, snickering at the thought of my befuddledment?

I am on to them now though. Alphabetical order, ha! Their foul conspiracy is exposed. Let's see just how smart they really are and challenge them to create an encyclopedia in topical order, a collection that can be read from front to back like any other book! Take that!

The Great Secret of Geography Revealed at Last

Islands float you know. People will tell you that an island is really the top of a mountain rising up from the bottom of the ocean, poking through the water. That's a myth, of course. It's something we are told so we'll believe that the earth makes sense. If we knew just how senseless the earth really is, we wouldn't take things so seriously and nothing would get done. We'd just meander aimlessly from place to place for no particular reason, frolicking happily, smiling and laughing and accomplishing nothing. To keep us occupied and productive, we are told all manner of fables and fanciful tales. One of those is about islands.

I discovered the secret of islands while standing on one of the beaches ringing the tiny island of Puerto Rico. Now Puerto Rico is between two large bodies of water. On the south is the Caribbean and on the north is the Atlantic. Puerto Rico floats in the middle, drifting around in a circle. You can tell because the wind blows from the east almost all the time. This is because there are whales on the west coast of the island pushing the island to the east causing this breeze. As soon as the sun goes down the whales go to sleep and quit pushing and the island stops drifting. About this time the manatees and dolphins on the eastern end of the island begin pushing it back the other way. By the time the sun comes up again, Puerto Rico is back where it was the day before.

Columbus discovered all of this when his ships got to Puerto Rico a day sooner than he had planned. This made him believe that Puerto Rico was a much larger island so he called it Cuba. He sailed on past and, on his way back, the island had drifted again so he got there a day later than he expected. This time he thought the island was much smaller so he called it, St. Thomas. He left the next morning but during the night the island had drifted back west again so he got to back Spain a day later than he expected and thought he was in Italy. All the maps we now use are based on these voyages. Geographers know that there is no such island as Cuba and that Italy is really Spain but they won't admit it. Even now there are people who believe they are speaking Italian rather than Spanish and insist on calling western Puerto Rico, Cuba. It's all so confusing.

It wasn't until NASA sent up an astronaut that this mistake was finally acknowledged. John Glen looked down and said, "What's Italy doing in the Caribbean?" The resident geographer, Dr. Spindle Awry, explained Glen's observation on an LSD flashback and the mission was immediately aborted postponing the invasion of Cuba indefinitely. Dr. Awry was dismissed soon thereafter. To minimize the embarrassment to NASA, the whole incident was deftly misunderstood and blamed on the Italians.

Even now scientists (and geographers) continue to defend the accuracy of their maps and we still haven't invaded Cuba. Dr. Awry was lost at sea trying to locate Puerto Rico and I'm still sitting on the beach enjoying the breeze.

Blog Directory - Blogged