Thursday, August 14, 2008


I don’t know about you, but I want to look at the universe and have some clue what I’m looking at.

But history throws a wet blanket on people like me. I look along it and find always the same thing: people who are sure that they understand things. But no. At best they’ve advance our understanding. But they always seem to overestimate their take on things. Later generations always end up looking back at it and saying, “God, imagine being that clueless.” But of course GenN+1 is almost as clueless as GenN.

So it’s an endless chain of foolish confidence. That’s what history is. The best we can hope for is advancing our understanding a little bit. But we’re still essentially clueless.

I guess I can see being one of the workmen building a pyramid, but only if I get to see the finished product. Imagine working on a pyramid knowing that the damned thing won’t be finished until long after you’re dead! I don’t know about you, but I’d have trouble getting up in the morning to go to work.

* * * * *
I am impressed by the universe, but, for all that I know, I shouldn’t be.

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1776), David Hume has us imagine that we are examining a magnificent ship. It’s big, it’s complex, it’s beautiful, and it’s powerful.

“Wow,” we say. “Whoever designed and built this ship must be a genius!”

But no:

[W]hat surprise must we feel, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiplied trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving?

Dave has got a point. That ship can be explained without bringing any Poindexters into the story. All we need is a series of Felixes. Or even Vavooms.

But of course the same point can be made about the universe itself. It is grand, complex, impressive. Maybe we’re inclined to attribute all this whiz-bangery to a Creator. The fellow must be a genius!

Nope. For all its grandeur, the universe can be accounted for through the efforts of a very long series of divine knuckleheads:

Many worlds might have been botched and bungled, throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out; much labour lost, many fruitless trials made; and a slow, but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages in the art of world-making.

Dave’s pal Adam Smith started us down the road to explaining “designed” things without anyone’s intending them. And that brought us to Darwin eighty years later. So, now, we don’t even need a knucklehead to explain grandeur. It can be done with utterly mindless processes.

Can such processes impress us? I don’t know. I do think that's a good question, though. I'll be thinking on it.

Hume goes on to say:

In such subjects, who can determine, where the truth; nay, who can conjecture where the probability lies, amidst a great number of hypotheses which may be proposed, and a still greater which may be imagined?

That’s right, Dave. Once again, we’re clueless.

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