essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
I’ve often thought a good question preferable to a bad answer, even though answers make us feel more comfortable by bringing the chaotic world outside into the ordered inner world of the mind. I had a bad education, paying little attention to school, which I then thought of as unnecessary. I was self educated later, after school days were over. I read much and understood little. As a result of this, niggling doubts creep into my mind from time to time, and here are some examples.
How does a behavioural mutation that is desirable environmentally (such as walking upright) modify the DNA of an individual’s descendant?
If time implies space, as in the expanding universe, what determines direction? Why, during the Big Bang of origin, was direction outward not inward, as there was no atmosphere to influence direction?
3. Social interaction
When people meet, each is influenced by the other’s unvoiced expectations, i.e. of politeness or rudeness, hostility or friendliness, degree of violence, selfishness or altruism and so on. Each of the two has also a motivation inspired by ego, selfishness and self gratification. What determines the proportion of these two forces and why does it differ from case to case?
If we don’t remember life in the womb (we all existed in potential only at first, as DNA code, so had no self to remember with), then why do many if not all stories concern a journey, beset with difficulties and full of dangerous discoveries, in which the travellers discover their emotions? Is this only a coincidence in resembling the flood, the journey along our mother’s vaginal passage in which we struggled against we knew not what, the coming into a world full of light and noise where we sought refuge, and finally found it in our mother’s arms, and heard her heart beat once again? Could imagination be a form of memory? If so could this memory belong to something existent before the self?
Why do we prefer pain, guilt and sorrow over happiness, joy and pleasure? Put another way, why do we remember sad things and take good things for granted (until we lose them)? My favourite example of this tendency is in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Which account do you remember best?
Genesis 1,1 − 2, 14 tells of the creation of the world. On the fifth day god creates human beings: “So god created man in his own image; in the image of god he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase, till the earth and subdue it, rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in heaven, and every living thing that moves upon the earth’.” (Genesis !, 27-28, New English Bible, OUP 1970). Jump to Genesis 3, 30: “The man called his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all who lived. The lord god made tunics of skins for Adam and his wife and clothed them”. Then comes the expulsion from Eden, because Adam and Eve were “like one of us” and could also become immortal. And on to the story of Cain and Abel.
In between comes Genesis 2, 15 – 3, 29, with a different tone to it entirely. Scholars say another writer added this story to the original one of the creation (above) and it was probably not written by a woman. It contains a description of the Garden of Eden and its four rivers that sounds as if it came from an Egyptian source, and goes on to tell of the fruit of the two trees which were forbidden (note that god tells the world’s first lie, for he says Adam will die if he eats the fruit of the tree). Then comes the creation of Eve as an afterthought, from Adam’s rib, the temptation of the serpent, who tempts Eve, then Eve in turn tempts Adam. Then shame enters the garden and the two cover their genitals. Then god punishes them by making Adam and Eve labour all the days of their lives, because, as he tells Adam, “you have listened to your wife”.
One of the patterns I see around me is the pair, two of a kind, opposites, twins. In science and philosophy it’s the alternation of analysis and synthesis. In history it’s the division into investigation (history) we inherit from Greek civilisation, and rhetoric (persuasion) we inherit from Rome. Elsewhere we have Heaven and Hell, good and bad, right and wrong, interior and exterior, husband and wife, mother and father and so on. Could this propensity for two choices be a biological prejudice, as we are a sexed species? Perhaps it’s all a matter of XY and XX chromosomes, sperm and egg. That limited choice gave us us; perhaps that’s why we prefer it, though we reinforce the limited choice syndrome with morality. Yet sex evolved from cell division as a means of reproduction because it ensured genetic diversity. In other words a choice of two resulted in a choice of millions to support the evolution of life. Despite all that, we don’t like multiple choice. Three’s still a crowd. Are we stuck on two, or evolving to more complex systems of reasoning?
We know gravity, the force that when we drop a hammer makes sure it lands on our foot. Going back to school I learned gravity is a universal force through the universe (excuse the tautology) and that it can be described in two different ways, one a mathematical formulation that explains its limited effect on objects on or near earth (Newton’s Laws of Motion), another a posited relationship that determines its reaction on and to spacetime throughout the universe (Einstein’s Theory of Relativity). What I wonder at is that the suggested origin of the universe, the Big Bang, created a dispersal of massenergy in what became the universe, and simultaneously a force that drew all this back together, a simultaneous outward and inward force or forces. The interactive result was to turn a mass of hydrogen molecules into stars, galaxies, solar systems and planets and life to evolve on some of these planets. How could the Big Bang result in gravity? Does it show foresight and planning on the part of the nameless entity that preceded the Big Bang?
We all know about racial prejudice, but why do we have it? In the USA some residents of southern states are prejudiced against citizens with African blood in their veins; some residents of northern states are prejudiced at Southerners for showing this bias, which seems to me more of the same. Yet America is a country of immigrants who formed a nation only 20 years before they started importing slaves from Africa to run their farms. In other words Africans and Europeans got to the country more or less at the same time. But I can’t see where racial prejudice comes from. Racial dislike on the other hand is universal. We are all prejudiced in favour of those with our own characteristics. That the Gujarati or Marathi should clash with Tamil, or Croats with Serbs, Turks with Greeks or Poles with Germans is the inevitable result of past conflicts. But how does it result in violence by the state towards individuals, as in South Africa’s apartheid? One would think descendants of ex-slaves deserved compensation, or at least apology, not violence.
The Bible is often cited as originating racial prejudice, but it doesn’t refer to different races at all. It’s probable that the writers of the books of the Bible were only familiar with Semites of their own racial type. The Jews are another people victims of racial prejudice, even where the Old Testament is revered. In medieval Europe money lending (usury) was considered a sin, but international trade could not proceed without it. Christians could not lend money, so the Jews were forced to become money lenders. Then they were reviled as extortionate. Because of this association of Jews with international finance each Crusade started with a slaughter of Jews in European towns and cities. This was the precursor for the Nazi destruction of Jews as responsible for Germany’s financial problems and members of an international cabal trying to take over the world (just like Hitler). Racial prejudice against Jews is said to originate with the New Testament, with the charge that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, even though the Gospels make clear the Romans were responsible. The Bible has been called in and falsified to justify an already existing prejudice. Racial prejudice is so irrational: could it be the result of guilt?
Historians say that civilisations progress by fits and starts, not in an orderly development. Biologists and psychologists say that’s how the human brain works too, an active period followed by a fallow one in which new information is digested. Come to think of it, a bit like the human stomach. So, in certain periods, such as at Periclean Athens, Renaissance Italy or Elizabethan England, there is huge development across many fields of endeavour. A notable result is that many artworks or inventions associated with these periods are the best of their kinds, produced at the start of the active period: the English theatre began with Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare; the Renaissance with Johannes Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press; and ancient Athens produced statesmen like Themistokles and Aristides when Persia became a threat to Athenian freedom. But why this fits and starts procedure? There have been attempts to correlate it with incidence of sunspots. Does it have anything to do with political and economic developments that brought new diseases or a new diet to countries as a result of trading arrangements? Do civilisations work the same as the brain because they’re produced by the brain?
Does humour serve a purpose? Is it an evolutionary gain to be able to laugh? Laughter is the best medicine according to an old saying, but what exactly is this ha-ha-ha-ha noise I make? Do other languages laugh the same way? Do animals laugh? Biologists say laughter is indeed a good medicine, producing beneficial endorphins and enlarging the blood vessels. Because it exists in babies and primates some speculate it predates language. Perhaps it serves to strengthen social structures. Couples tickle each other, friends sharing a joke will feel compatible and liable to support each other. Like all human practices, laughter has become more complex as we have developed. There is false laughter for example: the fixed grin at the unfunny joke; the Japanese person who laughs behind a hand covering their mouth at your social gaffe; hysterical laughter; the ironical, even aggressive, laugh as a sign of rejection, usually pronounced har-har-har. Could laughter have originated in primitive, pre-human times, after a successful hunt, as herd members acted out the ridiculous or admirable conduct of their members after bringing home prey to eat?
Perhaps you’ll have a good laugh at my questions, all of them the product of ignorance, and why not? Despite making me look foolish, I think asking questions about things you don’t fully understand a lot better than pretending to know more than you do. Questions open the mind while answers tend to restrict it, one possible answer usually stifling others. Don’t try to have all the answers, because that often begs the question. One technique I see used often in arguments is to refute a point your opponent has never made, i.e., claim they have a refutable point of view easily disproved which in fact is similar but not the same as their real point of view. Likewise, an easy answer is often one for the wrong question.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.