Saturday, April 25, 2020

For Our Descendants

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

[Isaac Watts, “O God, Our Help In Ages Past”]

     It’s a commonplace that even the smartest and most erudite of us know very little, in comparison to “all there is to know”…or even to “what we currently know.” I feel secure in predicting that this will not change. The human mind is limited; human mortality guarantees that it will remain so. Though you learn all you can, there will still be a wealth of fields you will never master.

     The “thing” we know the least about is the future: what will come to pass tomorrow. It’s what makes science fiction an inexhaustible field. It’s also the meat and drink of prognosticators past, present, and – dare I say it? – future. There’s good money to be made if you can persuade the rubes that you can see what’s coming…though it’s best to be well out of town before the future actually gets here.

     All the same, we speculate. Some of us lay large bets on the shape of the future. And some of us indulge in dark forebodings of the “The End Is Nigh” variety. Yes, eventually that will be correct, at least for some values of “nigh.” But I wouldn’t go on a spree out of confidence in the proposition.

     The late, great Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate physicist and teacher extraordinaire, once posed this question as the basis for a college-level physics curriculum:

     “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence was passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?”

     Jonah Goldberg has rounded up some answers he’s seen, including Feynman’s own. I must say that none of them impress me – no, not even Feynman’s. So I decided to try it myself. Here’s my best effort:

     The universe has unbreakable laws you can learn and exploit, if you watch the world around you with proper attention and without preconceptions.

     …and it’s really no more impressive than any of the ones Goldberg has aggregated. But perhaps that’s “just the way it is:” — that it’s in the nature of things that no single sentence we could pass on to an unimaginable future would be of much use. Gregory Benford would agree.

     We have learned a great deal, including many things we’d probably wish were not so. That, too, is in the nature of things. Thomas Sowell’s discourse on the tragic vision is highly relevant here. I’ve remarked on the thesis in various contexts.

     Ironically, a man whose activism I detest expressed the essence of the tragic vision in three short sentences, all of which any Gentle Reader will find familiar:

Barry Commoner’s Precepts:
1. No action is without side effects.
2. Nothing ever goes away.
3. There is no free lunch.

     The education of the young should emphasize those things. It should also inculcate in the student a healthful distrust of those who are styled “experts.” For what is an “expert?” Who awards that status, and with what justification? How much more, even in a narrowly delimited field, does the typical “expert” really know than anyone else – and how many “experts” infest our airwaves and our corridors of power who really don’t know shit?

     Those who repose their faith in “experts” probably haven’t seen and grasped what Conan’s father told him when he was young:

     It applies quite as strictly to “experts” as to any other human being.

     Yes, Gentle Reader, I’m in one of those moods. They’ve been fairly frequent of late, owing to prolonged confinement with my beloved wife, who’s gone about as far toward absolutely BLEEP!ing nuts as an American woman can get without being packed away for a stay in some institution where the guest rooms have soft walls. All I can do is strive to keep to myself, and that has its own costs.

     But this morning, Mark “Mad Dog” Sherman has called my attention to an article that strikes me as unusually optimistic about the future. While the topic is impending backlash against many aspects of our current order, it is nevertheless a pleasant vision of what may come. It’s essentially un-excerptable, so please hie thee thither and read it in its entirety when you’re done here.

     Such a wave of backlashes would do the nation a power of good. In particular, it would immunize us, at least for a time, against uncritical acceptance of the blandishments of “experts.” It would remind us that no one should be trusted with power over others. And it would remind us of something that far too many members of our political class have urged us to forget: that all things have their price – that there is “no free lunch.”

     Conan’s father would approve that message.

     Immured in our current condition, un-illumined even by “glimpses of Nirvana as seen through other people’s windows” (Procol Harum), it’s pleasant to imagine that we’ll emerge – assuming we ever do emerge – “sadder, but wiser.” We’ve allowed infamies to be perpetrated upon us – and the worst of them have issued from our own politicians, who have relied upon the dubious authority of various “experts.” That recognition, and the grasp of the motivations that drive those politicians and “experts,” would complete the awakening that began with the election of President Donald Trump.

     For we badly need to awaken. Too much has been taken from us, always under the pretext that “our leaders” and their chosen “experts” know better than do we the hoi polloi. There won’t be a wealth of opportunities to take our rights, our economy, and our nation back into our own hands if we don’t do so P.D.Q. But we won’t do so, now or ever, if we don’t accept the counsel of Conan’s father.

     And in light of that, perhaps the one sentence that would best fit Feynman’s specifications would be this:

Trust no one: not men, not women, not beasts, and certainly not the “experts.”

     It might not strike you as “science,” but it would convey one hell of a lot of painfully won wisdom to our descendants.


mobius said...

Steel it is, then.

JWM said...

Yesterday was warm and clear here in So Cal, a welcome relief after a few weeks of cold gray weather. I took the red bike out early for a long cruise. The red bike is my daily rider. It’s a fat tire cruiser, but it’s set up for doing serious mileage. I started out putting in some warm up time in the neighborhoods around home before taking it up into some hillier roads.
There were few folks out walking the residential streets near my house. One of the streets was deserted except for a short, slight woman, probably in her mid to late sixties, same as me. She had her little dog on a leash.
She didn’t hear me pedaling up until I was within about twenty five yards or so behind her. When she did hear me she snapped around. There was no one on the street, yet she was wearing a blue paper mask. I do not wear one. When she saw me cruising up all unmasked, she tried to bolt across the street to avoid me, but I was already too close. The poor woman was utterly terrified. She turned around and cowered, bent low with both hands to her cheeks pulling the mask tight around her face. She was hunched over as if I were standing there threatening to strike her. I felt an overwhelming flash of pity for this poor creature.
This is the work of our media. I have no doubt whatsoever that her only source of information was her television set. The wedge has been driven deep. We are face to face with unmasked evil.


Paul Bonneau said...

Government is a disease, masquerading as its own cure.

Andy Texan said...

I have became very pessimistic. The President had a life or death decision back in March and he made the wrong move. The problem is exacerbated by the human tendency to think that we can act in the place of God and eliminate illness and death. He had no possibility of succeeding. The virus (probably man-made) could not be ameliorated for all people. In trying we are going to be very regretful. Our worst fears will now result. My own fears are very well defined and leave me full of melancholy.