Friday, July 6, 2012

Lord Russell and the Cosmic Turtle

I see men ordinarily more eager to discover a reason for things than to find out whether the things are so.    (Michel de Montaigne)

I was reminded (for reasons made clear in a moment) of an old story about Bertrand Russell giving a radio lecture on cosmology for the BBC. A lady caller had serious intellectual objections to Russell's view that objects in space, including the Earth, float about unsupported in a void. She explained that our home planet at any rate rests on the back of a very large turtle. Hoping to alert her to the dangers of the Infinite Regress, Russell asked gently what the turtle rested on. The lady gazed into the abyss without flinching and promptly replied, "It's turtles all the way down."

Hardly anyone since Aristotle has seriously proposed that humans are "rational animals." In fact, humans are more accurately mere featherless bipeds, our vaunted faculty of reason mostly the feeble and generally fallible instrument of our self-interest. The typical mind is a whimsical play of errant, mostly accidental, associations; a jeu d'esprit untrammelled by logic; a kind of galvanic bath filled with volatile, brightly colored and occasionally toxic juices. The lady can gaze unfazed into an infinite regress of turtles and accept it happily as the way things have to be for her particular turtle. Similarly for formal contradictions and informal fallacies of every stripe, including a preference for causal explanations both redundant and remote. We easily - inevitably? - lose our way in the dialectic, our intellects riddled with wrong turns, skewed pictures and misdirection.

I was reminded of the story about Lord Russell and the Cosmic Turtle by a conversation I had on my recent travels back to the tribal reserve, where I encountered a cousin whom I hadn't seen in nearly a half-century. I should mention that the members of my extended family are given to that peculiarly American religiosity one expects to encounter only in Waziristan or the remoter reaches of sub-Saharan Africa. So, apropos of I forget what conversational strain he was trying to tease out, he mentioned that sea levels were steadily rising along the East Coast between the Carolinas and Florida. It mystified him that God was allowing this to happen without as yet providing any evident corrective.

A reasonable soul might conclude that the cause of this gradual inundation is neither so far to seek nor so extramundane, and that there might be measures we earthly inhabitants might take by way of halting the deluge. My relative, I am all but certain, would have scoffed at any measure more tangible, efficacious and evident than, say, fervent prayer, which is cheaper, easier and less inconvenient than what it will require to turn back the rising flood. It didn't occur to him at the time that this might be a Pat Robertson Moment, God trying to tell us to change our ways. But it's hotter than hell on Mars, in a manner of speaking, and there aren't any SUVs there, so why worry?

Presuming that evolution is the most reasonable account to date of how we've come to be what we are, we seem to have reached this point in our genetic history with a broad penchant for the irrational, the superstitious, the tribal, and a generous component of the downright silly. There's something charming in our constitutional illogic, in our ability to live with contradiction, with specious explanation, with the simple-minded stories that explain us to ourselves, stories that evince a naive faith in our own inevitability as a species.

It's really only when we enlist our ignorance and irrationality in the service of our self-interests that these traits become disingenuous. Meanwhile, I suppose, we'll carry on this way until the planet sloughs us off and starts over with a more workable plan. We can say we never saw it coming. And we'll have an excuse.

 Minds at play

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