(Being the Further Adventures of a Cosmic Terrorist)
By Hilton Ratcliffe
Voelvlei is a 300-acre patch of pristine veld and wetland in the lee of KwaZulu-Natal’s Karkloof Mountains. There, in a rambling Meccano-set, double story house, shaped, it would appear, more by its inventors’ exploratory drive than by architectural vision, live Paul and Jill Jackson. Paul is a retired professor of physics and general inquisitor of nature. From time to time, I make the two-hour journey through the rolling emerald hills of Natal’s magnificent midlands to spend some quality learning time with the Jacksons, gazing out over the valley towards distant timber plantations with their two dogs and a cat that came in from the cold. I would like to recount a recent visit, because it illustrates the long-term benefits of listening to someone who knows more than you do, even if you don’t always agree. The dialogue took place in warm autumn sunshine on the front lawn, traced over a litany of birdcalls and buzzing friendly insects. I have named it “The Lesson of Voelvlei” and my account takes the form of an unsent letter to Prof Jackson.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation yesterday. There’s good news and there’s bad news. First, the bad news. You pointedly advised me to be wary of logic and rational thought as the means to reach conclusions about the world. Thank you for the advice, but it occurs to me that you used logic to frame your argument! It’s a paradox in the purest sense. I listened carefully, and weighed up what you said—with logic again. I’m afraid it’s a dead-end street, a classical circulus in probando sand trap that leads nowhere useful. Actually, I must say, it’s just plain bad advice.
“Notwithstanding that, I came away enriched by something else. You told me to remember who I am. Where do I come from? How am I equipped to deal with my shift in history? Yes, I am indeed a chattering African ape with interesting thumbs, given to exuberant vocal signalling called speech. This is where our dialogue, essentially between two monkeys on a hillside, barking and coughing at each other under a clear blue African sky, has led me: To look carefully at just what sort of machine I am in this magnificent wilderness, and how the cogs and wheels of my consciousness equip me to derive, hold, and express an opinion on anything at all that drifts in through the windows of perception.
“The Lesson of Voelvlei is profound, and may in fuller time emerge as a book in its own right. For now, I want only to set the wheels in motion. What kind of monkey am I? This is the threshold of a tricky game in which I think about thought, and I must be careful not to out-clever myself.
“It would appear likely that in common with all sentient species, my mental pictures mimic—that is, symbolise in a faithful way—the world outside. The first principle is that the spatial frame of reference in my mind is the same as that which applies to the real world outside. It is a 3-dimensional construct, plain and simple. I can create and hold in my mind an image of a 2-D object, say the surface of a page, but must realise that the image, like a hologram, is framed in a 3-D place. If I rotate the page in my mind, it becomes obvious. We cannot conceive of any object in other than 3-dimensional space. That’s the first clue that we are designed to accommodate environmental parameters, not conflict with them.
“The next phase is how the ‘facts’ arrange themselves; the way cause proceeds to effect; and how our mental processes best deal with this. Essentially, what happens is that we can manipulate these mind-bytes, using our designed-in cerebral abilities, in such a way that we are able, more or less successfully, to predict a given effect from observed causes. This is logic. The rational, dependable progression from cause to effect is a process that we are cerebrally equipped to manipulate towards a useful outcome. Once again, it is obvious that we are monkeys designed in harmony with natural, real world processes.
“In the context of the Lesson of Voelvlei, what emerges is this: To get a coherent mental reconstruction of external reality, we must use logic. There is no other way to consistently produce a proper result. We are simply not equipped—dare I say intended?—to deal with the world irrationally as a survival mechanism. It would be counter-productive and unnatural. Whatever we think, the only audit we have is comparison with external reality. No matter how convinced I might be that by simply flapping my arms I could fly like a bird, if I were to test my faith by jumping off the Empire State, gravity would win. If I can predict gravity’s victory, that’s logic.
“So yes, I am a chattering African ape (a notion which does not offend me in the slightest), and I babble on unashamedly in ape-talk, thinking and developing opinions in the fashion of the monkey that I am. For every yin, there is a yang. Intelligence is a mastery of logic and an appreciation of the aesthetic. Hedonism is tempered by ethics. Rational is shadowed by the irrational, and we, creatures of the little blue planet, must cope with that. It’s how well we harmonise with the laws of nature that will determine in the broadest terms the location of that seminal line drawn in the sands of time that separates success from failure. We won’t win by fighting it.
But I guess we all need to decide just what the ‘it’ is in our equation of state.
With kind regards, Hilton”
My father was agnostic, and I was brought up without religious prejudice. That really was an advantage, because when I went into science I had no philosophical or theological baggage to worry about. It was great. Eventually, my journey took me into the infinite universe of astronomy, and what I came across, what I saw with my own eyes, absolutely blew me away. There are enormous creatures out there, so big they make your eyes water, and they belong to species with the same general shape and behaviour that stretch out for as far as our instruments can see. I hadn’t expected to find what I did, and must admit to being somewhat puzzled that most professional astronomers seem to be desensitised to the spectacle and take these things for granted.
How can I possibly convey the rush that I get from looking at the cosmos? You see, what we have in the environment—and remember, astrophysicists are actually environmentalists on a really big scale—is consistently repeated patterns. We see millions of things, all with the same shape and general behaviour. Why? That’s the question! A few months ago, someone gave me an orchid to put on my desk. The buds were still furled, but over several weeks they opened up into the most stunning blooms with absolutely incredibly detailed intricacy. They were symmetrical, yet not. I spent hours gazing at them in abject wonder, and it occurred to me that orchids do not emerge because of a random, chaotic process. They are perfectly formed according to a detailed, pre-conceptual template that lays out the plan in such way a way that although all orchids of a particular species are similar, no two are identical. It’s all written in the genetic plan.
The kind of “intelligence” evolutionary processes have is a vision of the outcome before the process starts.
It’s exactly the same but on a vastly bigger scale up in the heavens. The nebulae, stars, galaxies and clusters of clusters of galaxies are blooms in the cosmic flower garden, and they reproduce themselves in the same general way. Consistently repeated patterns can’t be fobbed off as coincidence. It’s design, and it’s incredible.
A recent documentary programme on the isolated communities at the Arctic end of Norway’s magnificent, desolate coastal wilderness touched an inquisitive nerve in my consciousness. The camera stroked delicate nuances of colour from almost monochrome, fiercely jagged fjords, and reverently wove its way through the aching streets of boarded-up villages, where only ghosts appreciate the view. I followed the lens as it drifted into a churchyard—yes, such is the power of Christendom that even here, where reindeer fear to tread, there is always a church—and out into an expansive field of hoary graves where a few hopeful flowers remember spring. The tombstones are lichen-covered monuments to memories that themselves have gone cold. The camera quietly records the defunct generations of a millennium or more, now forgotten and left to lie in wait for the occasional sentimental visit by distant relatives or even the Blue Moon intrusion of a cameraman such as he.
I am poignantly reminded of Thomas Gray’s epic Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
I thought of those Rude Forefathers, these really no different from mine, and wondered if the nostalgic scene could bring me closer to the purpose of life. Untouched by all but the most rudimentary of technological remedies and social grace, they lived their lives organically and without pretence. They passed their time in simple, untouched peace, enduring the harshness of nature and unforeseen misfortune without the panacea of analgesics and anaesthetics. They raised their children and their livestock, tilled soil no more than a stone’s throw from their homes, and after all that toil and unwelcome pillaging by Vikings on their way to Iceland, their gift to the future was little more than their progeny and a mouldy tombstone.
That they did not invent vaccines or build pyramids or wage famous wars means they are anonymous in history, and for what they were in life, are now so completely forgotten that they might just as well not have existed at all.
Except for one almost invisible thing: Their seed.
What was the purpose of their lives? We cannot give a measured answer to that question by considering only what they experienced while they lived. We must step back and consider the species without factoring individual peons in the tribe. The satisfactions of life, and indeed life itself, pass in a smoky flash in the eye of eternity. Whatever their allotted span, whatever hardship, pain, or brief pleasure came their way, now it is gone and crumbled to dust. Their personalities and their physiques are not even shadows to be glimpsed by whirring video as we amble through history’s cemetery with more mystery upon our laden brows than before we came. Stripped of all the glamour and badges of showbiz achievement, lives such as these seem utterly meaningless. Except for one thing.
The survival of the species.
That’s it. A ghastly, macabre game of survival against preset environmental obstacles in a Universe that does not feel our pain. Actually, it’s absurd. The yoke of life weighs heavily upon our shoulders, and we have to hypnotise ourselves with temporary escape to find reward and satisfaction. No wonder people have in their quiver of arrows the instinct of belief and irrational awe of the idols of superstition.
Why else would we bother?
The Forer effect (also called the Barnum effect after P. T. Barnum’s observation that “we’ve got something for everyone”) is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, graphology, aura reading and some types of personality tests. A related and more general phenomenon is that of subjective validation. Subjective validation occurs when two unrelated or even random events are perceived to be related because a belief, expectation, or hypothesis demands a relationship. Thus people seek a correspondence between their perception of their personality and the contents of a horoscope. (Wikipedia).
A peaceful Sunday morning for me has been disturbed by plaintive forays into the garden with a fully charged paintball gun. My somewhat naive mission was to repel an invading troop of Vervet monkeys as non-lethally as possible. Here’s the thing: The situation in my garden this morning eschewed any sort of political or emotional sophistication. It was raw, primal, lacking any vestige of intellectual consideration. The conflict that rages at SkywalkerHeim is politics reduced to first principles. It is territory, pure and simple.
Voting is an expression of political will, and political will, in turn, expresses deep-seated tribal instincts. The inevitable consequence of social organisation—in mammals at least—is the subconscious stimulation of aggression and even violence between political laagers; there remains always an incontrovertible link to territorial pressure. At the end of it all, when we meditate upon these things over a perfectly brewed cup of tea, comprehending the roots of human social organisation becomes embarrassingly simple as the role of territory clicks into place.
Excerpt from The Social Contract – a Personal Inquiry into the Evolutionary Sources of Order and Disorder by Robert Ardrey
Tuskless in Paradise.
A society is a group of unequal beings organized to meet common needs.
In any sexually reproducing species, equality of individuals is a natural impossibility. Inequality must therefore be regarded as the first law of social materials, whether in human or other societies. Equality of opportunity must be regarded among vertebrate species as the second law. Insect societies may include genetically determined castes, but among backboned creatures this cannot be. Every vertebrate born, excepting in only in a few rare species, is granted equal opportunity to display his genius, or to make a fool of himself.
While a society of equals—whether of baboons or jackdaws, lions or men—is a natural impossibility, a just society is a realizable goal. Since the animal, unlike the human being, is seldom tempted by the pursuit of the impossible, his societies are seldom denied the realizable.
The just society, as I see it, is one in which sufficient order protects members, whatever their diverse endowments, and sufficient disorder provides every individual with full opportunity to develop his genetic endowment, whatever that may be. It is this balance of order and disorder, varying in rigour according to environmental hazard, that I think of as the social contract. And that it is a biological command will become evident as we inquire among the species.
Violation of biological command has been the failure of social man. Vertebrates though we may be, we have ignored the law of equal opportunity since civilizations earliest hours. Sexually reproducing beings though we are, we pretend today that the law of inequality does not exist. And enlightened though we may be, while we pursue the unattainable, we make impossible the realizable.
My monthly astrophysical column written for the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa.
“All truth passes through three phases. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” – Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher, 1788 – 1860
The media are awash with rumour, speculation, and no small measure of excitement. No doubt the thirteen million eager sycophants who bought and applauded Stephen Hawking’s monumental best-seller, A Brief History of Time, are leaning forward in their armchairs in rapt expectation—the shady halls of journalism are experiencing a feeding frenzy, devouring the scraps cast out by CERN and regurgitating them with thrilling headlines: The God Particle has been found! It must have been. As the cost of the Large Hadron Collider spirals upwards towards the twenty-billion-dollar mark, the world of armchair scientists prepares a fete of celebration not seen since Sir Arthur Eddington announced that he had indeed found confirmation of General Relativity Theory in the solar eclipse of 1919. So what’s all the fuss about?