Let me start out by saying that I more that half-agree with Mike Fisher’s comment on the post a couple of days ago–We’d Have Had To Invent It–”design” is a word with a lot of baggage, virtually none of it intended by what I was trying to get across with all that.
In the post that followed–yesterday’s–I tried substituting “engineering” for “design.” I don’t know if that helped.
It’s important to repeat, though, that I was not talking about what people do consciously and deliberately.
Certainly if we sit down and think out what makes sense in terms of how we can know we know (anything) or what the probabilities are in terms of order coming out of chaos, we come to all kinds of interesting ideas and an entire branch of formal philosophy.
But what we come to when we think about it deliberately is not necessarily what we do.
I’m sitting at a table, at the moment, and I perceive this table as “solid.” I know that that perception is an illusion. The table on which this computer sits, the computer itself, are both composed of atoms which are in constant, whirling motion.
When I think about this, I have no problems understanding why and how this is true.
But I don’t usually think about this. What I do is go about my day as if things like the table and the computer were unambiguously solid. This works in practice. I’ve got no reason to think about it.
What I meant in that post called “We’d Have To Invent It” is that most people–virtually all people–go about their day without thinking much about whether the universe is engineered or random, but automatically and unthinkingly responding to it in the same way as they respond to those things in their everyday lives that have been engineered.
They do not respond to it in the same way as those things they perceive as random or chaotic.
This is not a matter of epistemology, but of unconscious expectations, and part of my point was that the very basis for the novel as it was originally conceived and as it originally developed–and of the puzzle mystery especially–is that once you start thinking about it, the entire edifice falls apart.
You can see the way that works if you look at the issue of shared moral values, as those things we automatically think of as unquestionably morally true.
In the early part of the twentieth century, which produced both Conan Doyle and Christie, those shared moral truths covered a wide area. The fact that that area was founded on a long Christian tradition was less important than the simple fact that it was shared.
But the actual Christian moral consensus was already broken, as was the status of Christianity as true for society as a whole. There had already been a hundred years of thinking about it deliberately, poking at it, questioning it.
The only way the Christian moral consensus maintained its force when Conan Doyle and Christie were writing was in the fact that virtually nobody did question it. Even many of the writers who proclaimed themselves atheists and agnostics just went about trying to construct a moral code that was mostly just like the one they’d grown up with, but resting on different reasons.
Once that code began to be widely questioned, things got very sticky indeed. We fight, these days, over questions that all of us–religious or atheist, Christian or Muslim or Jew, American or African–wouldn’t have thought about twice only sixty years ago.
Most of you may be too young to remember when the big breakthrough in social attitudes about homosexuality–the really liberal, really open-minded response–was to consider homosexuals not morally bad, but mentally ill.
These days, we have very little we can claim as “morally true” in the population at large, at least in Western countries. A consensus is like an hypnosis, or a trance. Once the spell is broken, the world is a different place.
We have, I think, reached that different place. That’s why there’s a “culture war.” That’s why we find ourselves continually unable to draw any line anywhere. And I do mean any line, and I do mean anywhere. No matter what the issue is–even things you’d think were no brainers–there will be somebody, somewhere, arguing for the moral validity of it.
And that includes both sex with small children and cannabalism.
The issue in all this, for me, at the moment, is not where we’re going with all this. My guess is that, in the long run, we will find another consensus and it will last a good long time.
But in the meantime, without such a consensus–on the moral front or the epistemic one–I think it’s very hard to write a credible puzzle mystery, and nearly impossible to write a credible mainstream novel.
And I’m using mainstream, now, to mean Dickens and Trollope, not silly self-consciously arty “literary” things about how everybody is depressed and alienated because they’re so well off their emotions have died.
Or, you know, whatever.
The novel arrived in the world at a particular moment of history and culture, and that moment has–for better or worse–passed.
And that, I think, is how we ended up in a place where the novel as originally conceived and developed–secular and naturalist–has been giving way to the novel as a new way to express an older form, a form full of myths and legends and folktalkes, of magic and elves and dwarves and–well, things.
Space and time.
But more on that later, because I’ve got errands to do.
3 Responses to 'The Epistemic Polka'
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.