Re-validating the wheel

Crop Circle Swirl (image in the public domain)

Crop Circle Swirl (from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a bit of fun for a Friday. Somewhere deep in our genetics there’s obviously a need for answers.  I should give that a capital A really.  Somewhere deep in our genetics there’s obviously a need for Answers.

Answers are good: when you know the answer to a question you can move on to the next one.   That’s how progress works, by not reinventing the wheel. Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, and all that.

However, there is a danger in this.  Sure, no-one wants to waste time re-inventing the wheel but we should certainly revisit the blue-prints every now and again.  If we didn’t, we’d still be burning witches because we’d settled for a crude and inaccurate answer to the question of why a single woman might prefer to live by herself.

There’s a sequence of thinking that goes something like this:

We don’t have an explanation for crop circles…

… so we say “it’s a mystery” meaning we haven’t yet found the answer …

… which is an un-answer: it is an unanswered question to ponder or to research or to put on one side until more data is available …

… but people don’t like un-answers,  so they answer the question, saying “it’s a Mystery” (meaning aliens or ley lines or the Ancients) …

… and the question’s been answered and doesn’t need revisiting because it is a done deal …

… but it’s a non-answer which shuts down debate …

… so when we get more knowledge, and it turns out to be two blokes and a plank of wood …

… only some of us say “ah, the mystery is solved” while others say “No, no, no! We knew the answer already.  It’s a Mystery”.

The difference between answers and non-answers is invidious.  They can be hard to tell apart because they both feel like closure.  The wheel’s invented. Nothing to see here. Move along now.  By contrast, un-answered questions itch and scratch and nag and gnaw away at us; and that’s good, that way progress lies.

Many invalid assumptions are based on non-answers masquerading as answers. We have to check that the wheel we are using has an axle in the middle. Questioning those assumptions helps us root out the non-answers. But it is uncomfortable because we then have to live with those itchy, scratchy, nagging, gnawing un-answered questions, and keep them open, keep on asking them, possibly for ever. We have to be willing to live with not knowing all the answers about what Tim Minchin calls ‘this beautiful complex wonderfully unfathomable natural world’.

Ach, he puts it much better than I do, and this is the Friday Fun that I promised you, though I worry about the red wine and the white carpet.


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4 responses to “Re-validating the wheel

  1. The world seems eternally divided into those who believe we have all the answers we need, and those who search for further questions.

    I was even thinking today about how our attitudes to discipline have changed in the not too distant past. In the past, a short sharp smack was the answer to any allegation of indiscipline. Kids who strayed got beaten or scolded. Prisoners got hung or disemboweled for it. It would have been called common sense. This attitude, indeed, underlies the prime message of the Bible – that if you are good, fantastic, but if you stray…

    Nowadays the approach is so much different – more nuanced, more exploratory, and more caring. Imagine that. We are more caring now than God! Also, we are probably still only in the early stages of the science. More questions than answers, but what we do know beats the original answers hands down.

    Storm is such a cool poem. The absolute highlight of TAM London. They are making a very cool video of it, which should be out next year some time. I cannot wait. Tim Minchin is a genius.

  2. That’s getting interesting… thanks for that

  3. >> The world seems eternally divided into those who believe we have all the answers we need, and those who search for further questions.

    Sums it up perfectly, Colm. I am still green with envy that you went to TAM.

    Depannage, sweetie. I don’t mind that you do hand-crafted spam, but it would be so much politer if you were to post something relevant to the topic, and not quite so generic. Thanks.



  4. I loved the poem. It really sums things up.

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