Everything is sorrow

A physics undergraduate once claimed loudly at a party that everyone behaved as they did “because they wanted to.” The central tenet of this idea was one of self-interest: if someone did something, they did it because it made them feel good. I don’t know on what level to either criticise or sympathise with this viewpoint. I could sort of see that he was trying to get at something deep, some driving force like the long-lost subconscious, but that he was also dealing with it shallowly. On top of that, I knew that he couldn’t see that, however truer and truer he made his generalization by example or rationalization, he was somehow making it more and more trivial. Like with Marxism and Freudianism, a slight spin or tilt on the evidence means you can explain it from where you already stand. If you have to tilt the evidence so far that it tips, then you change the details of your theory, but only the details.

Through cunning and sophistry, generalizations can be made to fit a startling number of facts. That isn’t hard: Dawkins does it, Penrose does it, even emancipated Greer does it. But in the end all of these are interpretations. Not only are they transient because they are rooted in culture, but they are also flimsy because they can exist alongside multiple other interpretations because they consist of a personal judgment of known facts. Perhaps they can be temporarily institutionalized (speaking on cosmological timescales) by making them into a dogma or a Church, but the fact remains that, whether you like it or not, things are reinterpreted every generation. (Some people like to forget that they’re unavoidably reinterpreting things, lest their beliefs seem less fundamental. Often such people do astonishing reinterpretations in order to avoid admitting that they’re doing any at all.)

Since quantum theory surprised us all by showing us that the universe didn’t entirely run the way our everyday experiences told us it should, there has been a rebirth in the validity of multiple interpretations. This predates post-modernism, by the way, and there probably isn’t a single physicist who is so impartial that he feels that there is no absolute truth, whatever Popper has told us about science. Absolute truth is what drives scientists, even—especially—those who realise that there’s a point where facts end and you have to figure out which interpretation is the real one. Those who accept almost without question the idea of infinite parallel universes (because it’s such a neato! keen! idea) have only to look at the literature that explains all of quantum physics without them.

Turning the divination round, then: which interpretation you plump for says a lot about you. If someone says that everything we do is conditioned by caveman reflexes passed on through our genes, then they’re probably a biologist. If they say that our acts are socially determined and are bent by learned outcomes of earlier behaviour, then they’re either a human scientist or a psychologist. If they say that “there seems to be no plan because it is all plan,” then they’re C S Lewis. And if they take a cynical, nihilistic world-view where everyone is out for themselves then they’re either an anarchist, a veteran of one of the harsher, cigarette-smoking humanities, or a scientist that hasn’t had the bullshit kicked out of them. That’s why, when I saw him declaiming in a beery voice to anyone that would hear (and there were plenty), I couldn’t help but see myself, bullshit-filled to the brim, four years younger.

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