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The Epistemic Polka

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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.

Written by janeh

December 23rd, 2010 at 7:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Epistemic Polka'

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  1. Actually, although I know at least the basics about atoms and molecules and the empty space they swirl through, none of that seems quite as real to me as the solid desk I know – or at least, I’ve been told – is made up of molecules and empty space.

    This makes absolutely no sense at all, not even to me, because I’m not really a die-hard rigid materialist, what you see is all you get, but there it is. It’s the atoms that seem like an illusion, not the desk.

    Maybe that’s why I nearly failed one of the very few philosophy courses I ever took. All I can remember is the professor saying something about you think this is a chair, but how do you know it’s a chair?

    We do lack a consensus, and I haven’t the faintest idea what the new one is going to be, although I bet it’s not going to be exactly what any of the various hysterical factions want.

    I suppose it’s natural that we mostly act on habit and unconscious assumptions about the world. We’d be paralyzed if we didn’t. We can identify and change at least some of our habits and assumptions, but it seems to be extremely difficult – and even if we succeed, we often end up with new habits and assumptions, not a life or personality that is a coherent and rational whole.


    23 Dec 10 at 8:39 am

  2. In the early part of the twentieth century, which produced both Conan Doyle and Christie, those shared moral truths covered a wide area.

    Are you familiar with C.S. Lewis’s notion of “the Tao,” his notion that, independant of tradition, there is a consensus moral code?



    23 Dec 10 at 12:09 pm

  3. Hmmm. I agree with almost all of this post–the decline of the detective story, the decline of the mainstream novel, the absence of a societal moral consensus and the expectation that there will be such again–no more than a long generation off would be my guess: possibly sooner.

    “Almost” is because (1) I’m not convinced that the absence of moral consensus is what caused the decline of the detective story, and (2) I’m really not sold on the novel becoming something different.

    The detective novel first. We are remembering, are we not, that during the Golden Age both Lord Peter Wimsey and Sir Henry Merrivale let murderers go out of sympathy? I should also think, that if the decline of consensus morality has led to the decline of detective fiction, there ought to be a decline in other fields–adventure stories in particular–which are if anything more dependent on morality and less on law. I don’t see any such decline. There is not a decline in morals from Alan Grant to Spenser, but a decline in reason and respect for the law–and of the two, the detective novel needs reason much more than law.

    The novel. Well, the mainstream literary novel is, I am assured, in deep decline and I shall weep for it with dry eyes. But we’ve had adventure novels about as long as we’ve had vernacular prose literature, and I cannot see the break in tradition from Mallory through ROBINSON CRUSOE, IVANHOE and TREASURE ISLAND on to Leigh Brackett and Poul Anderson. Adventures often took place in the wild and unexplored corners of the map, and as the map has filled in, it seems natural to me that some of them have moved off planet or just into the future. Alan Quartermain and Doc Savage could hit terra incognita in subsaharan Africa and Tibet, and Brackett on Mars. Now we have to go further.
    We also need, if you will, someone standing outside to look in and comment on Man. We always have. George MacDonald is a contemporary of Conan Doyle, Lord Dunsany overlaps him and CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien are contemporaries of Sayers and met with her. “Heroic Fantasy” peaks somewhat later than the detective novel, but dwarves, elves and goblins were there all along.

    But aliens are also under the Ban, special attention should be paid to Poul Anderson’s “Polesotechnic League” stories, which by concerning themselves (usually) with evolutionary biology, may come closer to explaining what Man is than can be approached by any other method.

    It’s also important, I think, not to confuse imagination with lack of serious purpose. Shippey makes a credible case about the use of fantasy and SF as a way to approach the horrors of mechanized warfare and the totalitarian state. He mentions Tolkien, Vonnegut and Orwell. I might throw in Bulgakov. Tolkien deals with the nature of evil, addiction and the corruption of power, Bulgakov and Orwell with life in a totalitarian state. Robert Howard’s “Beyond Black River” on civilization and barbarism grows more pertinent with every passing year.

    If “secular and naturalist” is the defined objective, than any deviation must be decline. But if the novel is to explore the human condition in the modern age, I think “escapist” literature will outlast novels about preppies wanting to make heaps of money without “selling out.”

    Tolkien was right. The people most worried about escapes are jailers.


    23 Dec 10 at 7:11 pm

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