The other day I was on the tennis court alone, practicing my serve. From nowhere I heard a sudden loud noise, like an explosive. I couldn’t make out the source but then I noticed a flattened can on the other side of the court, about fifteen feet way. I went over to investigate and found a squashed can of corn beef hash, full, heavy. It had evidently been dropped from above the court, at least twenty floors up (the building has 44 floors and faces the tennis court). The act of dropping it had clearly been intentional and the purpose was presumably to scare me. If it had hit me on the head, it would certainly have killed me, such was the power of the impact. Reflecting on the incident later, it occurred to me that this was a minor act of terrorism: the purpose was to infuse an ordinary, peaceful activity–playing tennis–with fear and anxiety. And it worked: since that day I am always looking up and the calm of my tennis has been replaced with a kind of dread. Terrorists have made even the quotidian and tranquil into a zone of fear. Boy, would I like catch the person who did it. There is something nauseatingly sinister about the terrorist intention: to remove peace of mind.
How well understood is motion, really? Physics is supposed to be the science that predicts and explains all motions of matter; it describes the laws that govern the forces that move things. But there are some big gaps. The motions of particles are notoriously unpredictable and inexplicable at the quantum level, but at the cosmic level we have the problem of explaining galaxy acceleration–the universe is expanding more slowly than the calculated amount of matter in it would make us expect, given the accepted rules of gravity. Physicists have taken to speaking of “dark matter” a what accounts for the extra pull, but there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of such a thing–and isn’t the idea of intrinsically invisible matter an oxymoron? It’s just sheer handwaving. So we don’t know why the cosmos is movingas it is. Do we know why animal bodies move as they do? Doesn’t the mind play a role in “determining” these movements? But physics has nothing to say about the forces that govern the mind and its capacity to induce motion. I sometimes wonder if any motion has really been explained.
I recall reading somewhere that Keynes criticized Russell for saying that the problem with the world is that people are irrational and that the solution is that they should become rational. It seems a fair comment on Russell–but why is it a criticism? Because Russell’s observation is a datum not an explanation: we want to know why people are irrational andhow to improve their rationality. It’s obvious what the problem is and also what the solution would be–but we need to know what causes irrationality and what we can do to fix it. Freud had a kind of theory of this but nowadays it looks pretty wacky. There seems to be a big theoretical gap here, urgently needing to be filled. (Of course, we won’t recognize it if we start doubting that rationality is a robust matter.) I don’t have a theory myself–human irrationality can seem the oddest and least adaptive trait of the species–but I do think we need to work on it. Why do people go around believing silly things and acting idiotically?
The New York Times (as well as AOL) today ran a picture of a lesbian couple getting married in California: Del Martin, 87, Phyllis Lyon, 84. They are holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes, lined and grey and not long for this world; they have been together for 50 years. Doesn’t it make you feel embarrassed that discrimination and prejudice have prevented them by law from getting married all these years? Doesn’t it seem just utterly ridiculous? All this stuff about marriage being between a man and a woman: it’s just complete whooey. I really wonder what all those anti-gay-marriage twits out there think and feel when they see a picture like that. Do they feel their own marriages under threat because these two old ladies are finally able to tie the knot? I think we owe them an apology myself.
Despite my many misgivings about our prized political system, it did manage to elect Barack Obama to be the Democratic nominee. I’m pleasantly surpised at my fellow man. It’s not just his color, but also his calm, measured style, and obvious moral quality. But his color is, of course, highly significant. I can hardly think of a better thing for this country, and the world, than that he should be elected president. Political and moral progress is possible. Many blacks reported tears in their eyes when the announcement of his nomination was made; mine were damp too. This is a Big One. There’s nothing quite so gratifying as seeing a horrible prejudice smashed to pieces.
I am struck by this passage from Tocqueville: “I have previously stated that the principle of the sovereignty of the people hovers over the whole political system of the Anglo-Americans. Every page of this book will reflect certain fresh instances of this doctrine. In nations were it exists, every individual takes an equal share in sovereign power and participates equally in the government of the state. Thus he is considered as enlightened, virtuous, strong as any of his fellow men.” Toqueville’s point is that democracy presupposes that each person is as competent and virtuous as any other. But of course this is false: people differ widely in intelligence and virtue. Note that he says “considered” not “really”. So democracy rests on a lie. How, then, to defend democracy? Well, if truth, reason, virtue, etc are not objective qualities that people exemplify to varying degrees, but are rather relative to each person, we have a way out: everyone is as smart and good as anyone else to himself. Then democracy rests on no lie, since everyone really is cognitively and morally equal. Relativism steps in to save democracy from its noble lie. Thus relativism finds a foothold. But relativism is rubbish; so where does that leave democracy?
I watch how tennis players serve with great concentration. They all do it pretty much in the same way. And this way is quite different from the way amateur players serve, even quite decent amateur players. Claudio taught me the finer points of serving a few months ago (now, alas, he is back in Germany). High toss, long reach, bring the feet together, use a throwing action, backhand grip, snap the wrist down, plenty of side and top spin. It was incredibly awkward for me at first (backhand grip?!), but I took to practicing it almost every day for several months–not just on the court with a hopper of balls but also in my living room (no ball, just air). Gradually, the pieces came together, with some striking breakthroughs. Now what seemed alien feels natural. I can’t serve any other way. It feels good to hit it just the way the pros do. There’s a moral here–but I think it’s too obvious for me to want to spell it out. Main point is: instead of fearing to serve, now I love to serve. Indeed, I can’t wait to get down to the court and hit some serves.
My son Bruno told me yesterday that he’d just been watching a video of me on Youtube. Eventually it became clear what this video was of: a discussion I participated in a few years ago at the Philoctetes Centre in New York about evolution, consciousness, and the meaning of it all. I hadn’t even remembered that it was being filmed, but it’s a mark of our digital times that it has now shown up on the internet to be accessed by my son 3000 miles away. But that’s not the point I’m most interested in making here; because Bruno observed that the scientists present were generally disagreeable and closed-minded (he actually used a much stronger word to describe them). And he’s a scientist himself–a doctor (ENT). This prompted me to ponder who is more deplorable among us: the superstitious zealots who limit their knowledge to what the Bible tells them or the scientists who are unable or unwilling to take any question seriously which has no scientific answer–which includes most of the questions I as a philosopher spend my time on. Specifically, several of those present hated my bringing up the point that we have no good scientific theory of how consciousness evolved in the first place (or how it arises in the brain of every human being at some point or another–and not just human brains). Why are people so incapable of stepping outside the narrow world-view of their specific range of expertise–either the Bible or their particular scientific discipline? Is it fear, narcissism, laziness, bloody-mindedness?