Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Let's think about this some more

Actually, we should think more just about anything, but there's no time for most of us. I take that back, there's no time for any of us; not right now. Even those of us who'd like to think about a lot of things, just to figure out what's what, or maybe just what is. That's due, mainly and not to make any bones about it, due to the fact that we die—far too soon to get to the point of learning to ask the really significant questions.

That's, of course, how many of these blogs come about. I realize that a lot of people look at them and go "How the...?" or "Whisky Tango Foxtrot?" or "Where did that bee come from? Let's get the repellent." (Just stick to non-DEET ones, OK? They're definitely safer.) But if you lived inside my head—and lucky for you that you don't, because then you wouldn't be 'you'—you'd realize that there's a perfectly sensible narrative going on, just like in, say, one of my novels. Well, most people's novels, I suppose. I have come to think that I am one of those story-tellers who, when coming up against a situation that should have been predictable, but somehow doesn't develop as it should—mainly because I haven't thought it out in detail, and rather go with the flow and see what happens. In such a case it's much more fun to 'see what happens', rather than go with the flow.

I 'came across'—funny turn of phrase that, when it's in a story you're writing; it's not like real life, is it?—a situation like that in the last two days during recent writings on Aslam. It was a real 'battlefield' situation, where plans, contingency and unexpected ethical issues clashed and really confused things. I knew what the ultimate outcome had to be, but had had other plans for achieving it. What intervened was my desire to use this passage to insert some social/cultural issues emerging from contemporary history. So, the storyline got tweaked to cover this, which resulted in all sorts of complications, in terms of actions and their unforeseen consequences. As you know, or at least I hope you do, there's always more unforeseen consequences than predictable ones. In the end, the originally intended aim was achieved, but in a completely different way to how I had imagined it. And there were at least two twists in there that even I didn't see coming.

This is where story-telling becomes 'fun'. If it weren't, I'd probably give it up. If all goes according to plan, or if you want everything to go according to plan, you're better of writing computer programs. Allow it to be more like 'life' instead, but don't lost track of it also being fiction, and therefore hopefully somewhat under the author's control.

Still, the contingencies that come up because one has written (or 'told') oneself into a hard-to-extricate-from corner, teach the writer to remember the unexpected. Way I see it, of your story is completely controllable, then it's probably boring. Nobody—and here I hear a chorus of dismissive comments coming up from those who think they know better, been there and done that, or just simply are more experienced, or just think of themselves as...oh, 'better writers' maybe—can design a story in every detail and then expect that it is actually truly 'interesting'. I suspect even Tolkien, with his ponderous ways of carefully planning stuff, occasionally realized that things in his Middle Earth tales weren't going according to plan. The creature 'Gollum' has all the hallmarks of having been invented at the spur of the moment and because it was just interesting; and from there developed to what it finally became.

The basic rule of life is that the unexpected is much more effective at making us think than the expected. Doesn't mean we have to like it, of course. Indeed, a lot of people really dislike 'thinking'—usually with the suffix 'too much'—and deride those who do. But when you stop thinking, it's almost inevitable that, at those end points, you replace 'thought' with 'belief'. That's why you hear people telling you, especially when they are pressed to justify unjustifiable tenets, "Well, that's what I believe! So there." It's like a declaration that, no, they don't want to think about this any further, because that's as things are. Even highly intelligent people are subject to this folly. Why, they'll ask, should everything have to be thought out further and justified and explained in detail. What's wrong with a little 'faith', huh? Just go with it, and let it be.

I tell you what's wrong with 'faith'. It depends mostly on the context, of course.

Suppose, you have 'faith' in a person's good intentions, even though there's evidence that should tell you that your faith is misplaced. This kind of 'faith' is the kind having to do with your relationship to other people. And at some stage you just have to make a decision as to what's more reliable: your belief that someone is like this, or the evidence that s/he's like that. Or maybe you tell yourself that you'll believe the first thing, no matter what the evidence says. That, too, is a decision. There are cases where the evidence becomes kind of overwhelming; like when the police knock on your door and present you with a recording of a tapped phone conversation that proves that your beloved spouse is planning to kill you—as has happened recently here in Queensland. But, short of something like that, you'll probably go in favor of the spouse, or so one might hope. If the person in question is a politician, of course...well, in my case, I reserve my judgment, but in case of doubt that person's statements will count less than any evidence to the contrary.

If you're dealing with questions of science, evidence should rule supreme, and the only acceptable tenet of faith ought to be that the 'scientific method' is to be trusted and 'taken on faith'. But whatever it leads to, now that's an entirely different question. And strange behavior, like that of String Theorists, who recently and just for once have come across a case where the so-far-basically-useless String Theory actually predicts something testable, is quite unacceptable. Right now they're dancing on the table, claiming that their explanatory framework has finally found validation—the first of many, still to come. That's the wrong kind of 'faith' when it comes to science.

Last, there's the kind of faith that comes with philosophy, and especially metaphysics. It runs amok among New Agers, any religion, plus all sorts of ideologies that you'd think would have adherents who know better. That kind of faith in particular often responds to those who dare to question its validity with either the usual "Well, that's what I/we believe!" or and even sillier "Why do you think it's necessary to question this? What do you want evidence for? How about a little faith?" Well, no. The stakes are just too high to disregard whatever 'evidence' may be available, or to dismiss further thought about the foundations of the faith as somehow nuncupatory. Like is the case for science, we have to make a really important decision, and it is this: Do we just want to believe something, or do we actually want to find the truth?

Never mind that we'll never find 'the Truth'. But we can at least catch a glimpse of it by finding things that 'are true' and valid and real and verifiable. And we aren't going to get to those by just 'believing'. Maybe it'll make us happy, and that's fine. But let those who go down that path at least be honest enough to admit that...

I'm dreaming, of course. They can't be honest about that! For if they were, they wouldn't 'believe'; for belief in something being true in preference to something else being true, that implies exclusion of that which is considered not to be true. So, you either choose to believe or you choose to ask questions about what might be 'true'—and how it might be true or have been true or maybe one-day-will-be true, and for whom and when and where and under what conditions.

Should you choose the latter, keep thinking, no matter how much it hurts to realize each time you have that extra thought that you really don't know any damn thing but a few basics—and even about those you're probably not as clear as you'd like to be. And don't let anybody or anything stop you from thinking the one extra thought that might make you get to truths that you never expected to find.

And then...

...think some more.

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