Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Square One

We humans have a great advantage over the other animals on the planet. We have a collective memory through our writings and memes that we have been able to build upon for thousands of years allowing us to continue press on with our search for the Big Questions. There have been many of these questions that have been answered, however unsatisfactorily, throughout the ages. The important one that must always remain in the front of the skeptic's mind: "Yes, but is it true?"

We, especially now, live in a world which inundates us with information. We are constantly grasping for a greater understanding of everything from economics and psychology to politics and biology. For the most part we can rely on those that lead their fields in discovery because once they think they've found something, they run it past many others in their fields so that they may be checked just to make sure their observations weren't biased or mere mistakes. The great thing is that they still don't get too offended when we say "I don't understand." If they're true to what they do, they are happy to explain, often starting at the very beginning and leading us along the paths of discovery by the hand.

We should be proud of our heritage of curiousity. We should embrace our fellow humans who have come before us and challenged the status quo when it didn't match up with their world views. This is even true with those who were wrong. Somethings necessarily have to be hashed out in reality in order to test their viability. I, for one, am thankful for failed experiments as much as I am for the ones that worked. How many different materials did Edison try for his light bulb filament before he found one that was safe and reliable?

He tested the carbonized filaments of every plant imaginable, including bay wood, boxwood, hickory, cedar, flax, and bamboo. He even contacted biologists who sent him plant fibers from places in the tropics. Edison acknowledged that the work was tedious and very demanding, especially on his workers helping with the experiments. He always recognized the importance of hard work and determination. "Before I got through," he recalled, "I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material."


Maybe you aren't smiling like I am, but I find it wonderful that he knew it would work if he could only find the right one.

And when I read this passage in a letter written by the fascinating SciFi writer H.P. Lovecraft, I could not help wanting to stand up and say "Sir, will you please count me among those?"

You are forgetting a human impulse that, despite its restriction to a relatively small number of men, has all though history proved itself as real and as vital as hunger--as potent as thirst or greed. I need not say that I refer to that simplest yet most exalted attribute of our species--the acute, persistent, unquenchable craving TO KNOW. Do you realise that to many men it makes a vast and profound difference whether or not the things about them are as they appear?

And this is the case for so many people that I find around me. We just want to know. We have a desire to find out that which is true and that which is false. And some make arguments for falsehood saying that despite their lack of Truth, they give us comfort. Well, so does alcohol but that doesn't make it the most healthy habit does it? Would you stumble around content and ignorant? Ignorance is bliss, so they say. Then we read Voltaire. Oh dear, sweet Voltaire, how we wish you were here now.

A condensed version of the story The Good Brahmin(borrowed):

"I wish I had never been born!" the Brahmin remarked.

"Why so?" said I.

"Because," he replied, "I have been studying these forty years, and I find that it has been so much time lost...I believe that I am composed of matter, but I have never been able to satisfy myself what it is that produces thought. I am even ignorant whether my understanding is a simple faculty like that of walking or digesting, or if I think with my head in the same manner as I take hold of a thing with my hands...I talk a great deal, and when I have done speaking I remain confounded and ashamed of what I have said."

The same day I had a conversation with an old woman, his neighbor. I asked her if she had ever been unhappy for not understanding how her soul was made? She did not even comprehend my question. She had not, for the briefest moment in her life, had a thought about these subjects with which the good Brahmin had so tormented himself. She believed in the bottom of her heart in the metamorphoses of Vishnu, and provided she could get some of the sacred water of the Ganges in which to make her ablutions, she thought herself the happiest of women. Struck with the happiness of this poor creature, I returned to my philosopher, whom I thus addressed:

"Are you not ashamed to be thus miserable when, not fifty yards from you, there is an old automaton who thinks of nothing and lives contented?"

"You are right," he replied. "I have said to myself a thousand times that I should be happy if I were but as ignorant as my old neighbor; and yet it is a happiness which I do not desire."

This reply of the Brahmin made a greater impression on me than anything that had passed.

Will you join me on a quest for what is real? Let us go, then, you and I...
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