Sunday, 25 May 2008

Reality as quirkier than fiction

Reality can be stranger than fiction. Yesterday morning, for example, I was washing the only dish in my North Beach apartment when spotting something curious in between the twenty-odd feet separating 'my' house from the one behind it. I did a quick double-take to confirm that my neighbour was crossing the lawn stark-naked except for a short blue tee-shirt. She was carrying an espresso maker. I knew North Beach to be Bohemian - which is partly why I chose to live here - but was taken by surprise nonetheless.

The night before had been no less surreal. Having moved into my new apartment late that afternoon, I returned from a shopping trip (armed with bed linens, toothpaste and a corkscrew) rather later than I had planned. Vallejo Street was shrouded in darkness. I walked up to the door of what I remembered to be my apartment, unlocked the door with my very own key and, armed with two paper shopping bags, proceeded up the carpeted stairs. There, in the darkness, I made out three rooms, each more copiously furnished than mine should be.

I won't repeat the obscenities that crossed my lips at discovering that what should have been number 442 Vallejo Street was, in actual fact, 446. Confusion morphed into anxiety when, in the street below, a car approached. As the engine was silenced, veins throbbed noisily in my head. My palms were sweaty. After all, if this were a lone woman, she'd be freaked out by visions of an adult male stood awkwardly in front of her bedroom. If a man (particularly a burly one), I'd have my bacon whipped before being given a chance to explain how much more innocent reality is from appearance.

As it happened, its occupants mounted a house opposite. I walked downstairs, locked the apartment with the very same key, and made my way to the next house over. (I never did figure out why my key opens both 442 and 446 Vallejo St)

These two events, in close succession, reminded me of the surprising nature of reality - of how real life can be quirkier even than fiction. Why is it, for instance, that we are so symmetrical in so many ways and yet so lop-sided in others? Why do we have two eyes, two nostrils, two ears, two arms, two legs but only one heart left off centre? (Why not in the middle?) Why do we cover up our private parts as "private" but not our eyes, as windows into our very souls? Why are apples sufficiently round to be called round and yet not really round at all? And why is self-fulfillment more easily attained by focusing less on one-self and more on the happiness of others?

There is a rather more serious side to all this. Much of our scholarly practice is focused on inducing generalities about social life. Despite the obvious merits of uncovering general principles (e.g. in sometimes allowing for prescription), there surely is an inherent risk in this too? What prevents us from falling into the same trap as Tolstoy's plasterers who, in the absence of the chief superintendent, with much zeal plastered over church windows, icons, woodwork, and still unbuttressed walls and are delighted that, from their point of view as plasterers, everything looked so smooth and regular?

Tolstoy was, of course, a fox in the way George W. is a hedgehog. "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing", Isaiah Berlin wrote in 1953. What Tolstoy's genius saw was not the one coherent and orderly world but always "with an ever-growing minuteness, in all its teeming individuality, with an obsessive, inescapable, incorruptible, all-penetrating lucidity which maddens him, the many."

Berlin's distinction between the fox and hedgehog became one of his most characteristic contributions. Siding with foxes, he chided hedgehogs for their passionate adherence to three, largely untested, assumptions: (a) that to every genuine question there is one genuine answer; (b) that these answers can be discovered by the application of reason; and (c) that, together, these answers must form a coherent, internally consistent, logical whole. Reality is like a puzzle, fragments of which lie scattered around us. Ours is the task of completing the puzzle by ordering the various fragments into a (predestined) coherent and unchangeable image. And together they must fit.

These assumptions are not innocent. Their worst expression lies in fundamentalism: Christian, atheist, and otherwise, to Fascism, Nazism, genocide.

What if we were to relax these assumptions? What if there were no internally consistent, logical structure that underpins our social world? What if there were no utopian future for mankind? No ideal type into which we can be coerced for, if only we were more rational, this is what we would want for ourselves? What if, as Hedges suggests, the universal desire to be more than simply human lies at the core of the ideologies of atheists as well as the Christian Right? 

What if reality were quirkier than fiction?

(Relevant readings: I. Berlin (1953) The Hedgehog and the Fox; C. Hedges (2008) I Don't Believe in Atheists; Chesterton's Orthodoxy; M. de Rond (2002) Reviewer 198, the hedgehog and the fox) 


1 comment:

Jake said...

Oh man! What an adventure. God Bless California. Although it's getting hot here in New Jersey though, which prompts a fair bit of nudity in our house as well. Perhaps it's not unique to the West Coast. It occurred to me after reading this post that in one sense, reality MUST be stranger than fiction because fiction is limited by the mind of its creator. As a simplistic example, consider a 100-sided die and a 'story' about this die. If the die has 99 'zeros' and a single 'one', an observer would likely believe (after several rolls) that the die was entirely zeros. Any story invented about this die, dull as it may be, would contain this assumption about it's fundamental nature. Imagine then the observer's surprise when one roll reveals the 'one' rather than the expected 'zero.' It would display an event that had been hitherto inconceivable. All fiction, and all science for that matter, functions by making assumptions about the basic rules of our existence, despite our inability to fully explain even the simplest phenomenon. (Remember George Box: 'All models are wrong, some are useful?') The rare genius may describe a scientific, social, or metaphysical reality in a way that sheds more light on the world in which we live. But how much progress can a single human mind actually make given the complexity all around us?
I think this points to one of the basic paradoxes of the human condition: we are doomed to be frustrated with the fragments of reality that surround us, but our ability to at least try to make sense of them is what defines us as human.
I'm finishing up Atlas Shrugged. Finally. In his radio address John Galt says 'There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence--and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action.' This course of action, he argues, differs between plants and animals, and people. Plants and animals automatically act to further their own life, whereas humans must make a choice. While plants run on genetic tendencies and animals have pure instinct, humans lack the instinct to survive and must rely on their reason to obtain knowledge about the world around them. 'Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice--and the
alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man--by choice; he has to hold his life as a value--by choice; he has to learn to sustain it--by choice; he has to
discover the values it requires and practice his virtues--by choice.' So while the foxes make assumptions (a), (b), and (c), isn't that essential to what it means to be human? And doesn't Berlin refute his own claim that reality is incoherent by making any statement at all? Although reality may be inexplicable, we are still bound to try to make sense of it. As you mention, Hedges suggests that the desire to be superhuman has been responsible for ideological orthodoxy. I would argue that the desire to understand the world around us, form a perfect society, and become the paragon of morality is what makes us human in the first place. The danger comes not in the desire for these ideals, but rather in the belief that we have attained them.