Tuesday, March 24, 2015

More in Heaven and Earth ...: Hamlet and Theories (7 April 2013)

From an AP cosmology story, much repeated, March 2013:
            “The universe is described amazingly well by a simple model,” 
said Charles Lawrence, the lead Planck scientist for NASA […].  ***
            “We [may soon] understand the very early universe […] 
better than we understand the bottom of our oceans” […]. ***
             Two of [… the] theorists […] said before the announcement 
that they were sort of hoping that their inflation theory 
would not be bolstered. [...] because taking inflation 
a step further leads to [... an] infinite number of universes.

          In "The Graveyard Scene" in Hamlet (5.1), Prince Hamlet asks the Gravedigger, "How long will a man lie i' th' earth ere he rot?" and is told that if the man isn’t already rotten, for they have many syphilitic and otherwise corrupted corpses "now-a-days that will scarce hold the laying in," a corpse will last "some eight year or nine year," with the Gravedigger adding, "A tanner will last you nine year." Hamlet asks, "Why he," a tanner, "more than another?", and the Gravedigger replies, "Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade that a' [= he] will keep out water a great while, and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body" (152-62 [lineation may vary]).

         Now if you're preparing for a quiz on Hamlet, you should note that Hamlet's exchange with the Gravedigger is preceded by our learning that Hamlet is thirty years old — so he is, so to speak, a grad student at Wittenberg U. (1.2.112-14), not some callow youth — and that the dialog here gets in water imagery (a motif in this play) and hits on some important themes about the corruption of the flesh and hints about the possible corruption of mothers. That Hamlet can joke about death and corruption and let pass a word like "whoreson" indicates that he's in a much better mental state than we've seen him in earlier, soliloquizing at length and depressingly on life and death and corruption and his mother. Ah, there's nothing like getting away from the ol' castle for a bit of sea air and fighting pirates and bumping off a couple of school chums to chase away that nasty manic-depression!

         But let's assume you're not going to be quizzed on Hamlet any time soon and let me get to the "your" in the Gravedigger's phrases, "your water" and "your whoreson dead body." Just what it means, or doesn't mean, will be important when I finally get around to my topic.

         (Hey, if your whorechild typical journalist nowadays can habitually shoot to hell the opening three paragraphs of just about any news story by devoting them to "human" and "local interest" bullsh*t, then I can enlighten and entertain you recycling bits and pieces of my Shakespeare study guides.)

         Basically, when the Gravediggers refers to "your whoreson dead body," the "your whoreson" could be replaced by the article "a"; the phrase is a kind of vulgar place-holder with all the meaning and lack of meaning of, say, "your dumb-ass" in "your dumb-ass sprocket wrench" in the mouth of a stereotyped New Jersey mechanic in an old comedy routine.

         And "your water" just means "water," although if you want to hear an undertone suggesting urine, go ahead: the company Clown played the Gravedigger, and the Clown is supposed to be a little foul-mouthed.

         Anyway, keep in mind the meaning and nonmeaning of "your" when you consider Hamlet's more earnest colloquy with Horatio on ghosts and Hamlet's "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (1.5.166-67).

         Horatio's philosophy is mostly a fashionable Renaissance Stoicism in the reformed Roman tradition: as Horatio melodramatically says of himself — he's gesturing at suicide here — "I am more an antique Roman than a Dane" (5.2.330). This means that Horatio is like Mr. Spock in Star Trek: a rational being, by our standards unemotional, anti-emotional, and detached: but not totally detached; Mr. Spock is loyal, and good Stoics should practice rational brotherly love. More relevant here, Stoicism holds that the universe is determined and, most relevantly, the universe makes sense, and a sense humans can figure out and, rationally, live by.

         Now, I firmly believe that our universe is a universe: one thing, governed by laws that do make sense. I believe in one universe, at least for us — multiple or infinite universes would only reinforce my point; I believe in one universe, that makes sense, and which humans can have some success in figuring out and must attempt to figure out.

         This I believe (though not in ghosts).

         I am certain, however, that the human species is vanishingly small compared to the size of the universe and our history only a moment in the history of the universe. Given our radically limited perspective and experience, we are as a species necessarily parochial in our knowledge.

         Necessarily, there are more things in that universe than we can know with any degree of confidence, and just short of necessarily there are far more and far, far different things than can be dreamt of by even the most profound philosophers.

         Physicists may eventually work out a Grand Unified Theory of the physical universe and work from there to a Theory of Everything — everything in terms of physics; however, we're not going to get certainty with some general, philosophical Theory of Everything.

         "Pretty bloody obvious," you may say. I'll answer that I was taught early on in grad school that "The first duty of a critic" — literary critic in this case — "is to state the obvious"; and I've learned since that it's the duty of social critics to keep harping on the obvious and sensible until a few additional people eventually get it.

         So, then, a pronouncement: Yea, verily, no theory is complete, except in an ironic and paradoxical sense this theory of no theory being complete, and this unfortunate fact of existence has important ethical and political implications.

         Most centrally, it means that political Grand Theories of Everything —"totalizing theories," "metanarratives" — are always suspect.

         Does that mean we shouldn't use such theories?


         Does that mean a radical skepticism where you doubt everything, or a radical relativism where you say, "Everyone is entitled to their opinion" (sic on the "their") — and all opinions are just opinion and equal? Does it mean comfortable acquiescence in paradox and contradiction?

         Nope, and nope, and not that either.

         If you act in the world, you make decisions, and you make them on the basis of some sort of ethics, though for some nasty people an ethical system not much beyond "Hurray for me, and piss on you all." If you live in the world, you theorize the world, and there's much to be said for developing a philosophy of life and a way of life and not just some sort of life-style; there's much to be said for at least occasional commitment.

         If you act in the world, you should think about the world, and you should be very, very uncomfortable with contradictions and paradoxes and find "cognitive dissonance" not just uncomfortable but downright painful.

         There are situations in which you must act as if you were confident of the rightness and justice of your actions; it's just that you should never, ever come to believe in your own rightness and righteousness. There are situations in which you must commit yourself to actions you know are problematic.

         I for one am not an absolute pacifist, which means I believe there are situations where the least bad thing one can do involves minimally the threat of killing, wounding, and maiming people, and a willingness to carry out the threat. What you may not do is say that such killing (etc.) or even just destruction of property is a good thing. You must keep in mind something Oliver Cromwell said and should have kept in mind more himself: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ," Cromwell, wrote the Church of Scotland, "think it possible that you may be mistaken" (3 Aug. 1650).

         Cromwell was a good Puritan, who followed a Way and had a philosophy, theology, and theories about politics and very effective theories about the organizing and applying of military force to resolve political issues. He would have done well, though, "think it possible that" he might have been "mistaken" when, say, ordering the massacre of Drogheda in 1649, part of Cromwell's brutal (re)conquest of Ireland.

         In my teaching Eric Hoffer's 1951 study of fanaticism, The True Believer — with a touch or two of Søren Kierkegaard's 1843 Fear and Trembling — I used a thought experiment I called, "The Grand Inquisitor." Fyodor Dostoevsky had his version in The  Brother's Karamazov, and Steven Pinker uses a similar argument in The Better Angels of Our Nature, but this was my version, and I have priority on Pinker here and can claim to have offered a pedagogical "homage" to Dostoevsky.

         I asked the class to consider a nice Jewish girl in the hands of the Grand Inquisitor in the Year of His Lord 1500-something, having her breasts torn off by the Inquisitor's torturers (a detail I did not make up); or they could picture less sentimentally an energetic and persuasive male heretic — converso or Christian — being racked. I asked the class to judge the Inquisitor.

         And after a moment, I noted that if the Inquisitor's theology was correct, souls were of infinite value and the loss of one soul to the Devil would be an infinite loss. I also reminded them of Hoffer's observation that coercion can be effective; people converted by force can be quite devout, at least in part because the faith forced upon us had better be true, or we were cowards and traitors to our faith to succumb to force.

         To get technical, and mathematical, the salvation of a soul could be well bought at the price of the destruction of the material universe: the material universe is finite. Certainly, the salvation of a soul is worth the wrecking of a body or two: for eternal bliss one would do well to exchange a few minutes or hours or weeks of worldly torment. So torturing the girl could be an act of Christian love.

         Torturing the heretic can also be an act of Christian love, and it would certainly be (in an Inquisitor's view) a necessary and sound act of religious policy: heresy endangers many souls and heretics must be converted or, minimally, silenced and, where practicable, silenced in a way — to apply a formulation from the 1561 play Gorboduc — "As may be both due vengeance to themselves, / And wholesome terror to posterity" (5.3.91-92).

         If you throw in Kierkegaard, the Grand Inquisitor gets nicely problematic: there is the possibility he's a Knight of Faith, and, as such still dangerous but not despicable. Knights of Faith are very rare, however — as Kierkegaard was well aware — and it is way more likely that inquisitors were fanatics and therefore dangerous and, especially in Eric Hoffer's interpretation, highly despicable.

         A Grand Inquisitor thought experiment demonstrates the problem of any system that sets up a knowable and achievable good of infinite value. Actually achieving an "end" of infinite value would justify any means. Transcendent immortal souls, especially those separable from the body, are clearly such good things. But you don't need souls or God for a transcendent Good; eutopia will do. Pinker makes this anti-utopian argument, and it's one of the few clichéd parts of Better Angels. I'm a member in good standing of the Society for Utopian Studies, and I'll put the matter like this. In The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde said, "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing." Wilde said that in 1891. After the utopian disasters of the 20th century, including experiments calling themselves "socialist," it is better to say that our mental maps must always include a eutopia like Sir Thomas More's Utopia: a thought experiment of a Good Place — not a perfect place but a good one — an imaginary place that can provide a Norm, standards, which we can use to judge the existing places: possible futures by which we can judge the present and get ideas for improvement. But if a mental map of the world without eutopias is incomplete, maps giving routes to utopia — singular — are disastrous to navigate by.

         A single, uncomplicated, total, and totalizing theory of the world can lead to paranoid and/or totalitarian horrors.

         This side of the abstruse math of the basic forces of the universe, there is little hope for Grand Unified Theories of anything. Indeed, in physics and math it's been clear since the early 20th c. that their systems can be unified, coherent, powerful, and beautiful, but not totally certain nor complete. As a practical matter, in the world of everyday human scale and experience, theories and whole world-views are inevitable, necessary, and usually useful; it's just that sooner or later, and often sooner rather than later, they run into problems.

         A joke from the former Soviet empire has it that "Everything Marx told us about communism was a lie; unfortunately everything he told us about capitalism was true." Allowing for the hyperbole of joking, the point is well taken. There is more in heaven and earth and practical economics than dreamt of in the philosophies of old Marxists or the works of aging neocons and neoliberals.

         There is much to be said in both classical physics and military theory for equating speed with mass. In the US wars against the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein, "speed kills" worked for tactics, and the war-wonks' "Revolution in Military Affairs", American style, was highly effective in the First (1990-91) and Second (2003) Iraq Wars. Effective, that is to say, in formal war, against the Iraqi military; to put the matter mildly, the theories haven't worked out so well from, say, 2005 on, with the Iraqi insurrection.

         Similar arguments can be made about US warfare in Vietnam, and God knows that's where I'm coming from. The accusations of "military madness"and "the illogic of war" have their points, but what I recall most is guys in power confident about their theories.

         It was a complicated world out there, Horatio, just here on Earth in the Danish Empire of the Dark Ages or in Renaissance Europe. It was more complicated world for Donald Rumsfeld or Robert McNamara, and remains so for economists and politicians and social critics. "Your philosophy" just won't cover it all, and you — we, all of us — need to be open in deriving our philosophies and for modifying them. Indeed, we can even learn now and then from our opponents: we may think them vicious, evil, and stupid, and they may be vicious, evil, and stupid; but our enemies just may, occasionally, have some good ideas.

         And Hamlet, I'll allow you this bit of insight from a royal rationalist from a happier play. As Duke Theseus says in A Midsummer Night's Dream, with multiple ironies he doesn't understand, "shaping fantasies" can sometimes "apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends" (5.1.5-6). Still, outside of make-believe Denmark, Horatio's first hypothesis is correct: ghosts are just people's "fantasy" (Ham. 1.1.23). You were and are right, though, Hamlet — basically, more right than you and Shakespeare could know: even without supernatural ghoulies and ghosties and mythical beasties, there are far, far more things in a vast and incredibly ancient universe than can be dreamed of in any mode of human thought; there are far more things about mere human society than any theory will entirely comprehend.

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