2 Jun 2006

Friends of Folly

The town is a chessboard spread below me, my own little back street just visible between the large hotels. The Great Orme, where I sit is a lump of rock that juts out into the sea, with bronze-age mines above me somewhere, and here on the landward slope, a public garden, with sloping paths and benches between the trees. The town itself is built on a wide shingle bank that joins the Orme to the mainland. It’s a town with not only a sea-front, but a sea-back as well; in 50 or 100 years it will probably be under water, as it was in the bronze-age – the Orme a fire breathing dragon’s head, bursting from the sea. A grey squirrel trots down the path, giving me a casual glance. Birds and children chatter over the grumble of traffic. In the bright sun, there is a smell of dry earth and pine tree resin.

The Friends of Wisdom have been discussing what’s wrong with science – which seems to be that it has no values, or rather that it has hidden and highly suspect values, which it cannot consider and take account of. I find this somewhat confusing: science as a method, a practice, an institution, a body of knowledge, a system of technological innovation, a community of scholars, whatever it is, it does what it does, and we who do it, pay for it, enjoy its fruits, do whatever we do with it. Its values are our values. When the Chinese invented gunpowder, they had a different name and a different use for it – they made fireworks. Same powder, different values. Is there a problem with calling the making of the powder science, and the use of it something else, art or ethics or politics? Of course in the world, things cannot be separated like this, but thought and talk can only get going by making some distinct categories. I separate thought from world, fact from value, division from unity, and it is all thought making distinctions that are not separate in reality.

Seems to me that the success or progress of science exposes to us the complete lack of our development in wisdom or virtue – whatever we want to call this ‘other’ aspect of our lives – but why shoot the messenger? It might be convenient to have a scientific answer to how we should live, a science bible, but it’s a contradiction; science doesn’t do that. Science says that we are warming the earth with CO2 emissions, and the climate will change and sea levels will rise, leading to mass extinctions. It also explains what we might do to change this scenario – if we want to. It does not tell us that we either do or should ‘want to’.

I used to have a recurring dream – a nightmare I suppose. It wasn’t either images or words so it’s hard to describe. I was in a field, not a grassy field with hedges just an uncharacterised, but limited space, and there was a sense of huge constriction, an inescapable weight of the ‘sky’ about to crush me, and no way to escape it. When I was about 14, I suddenly realised that this dream was a birth memory – the wordless formless claustrophobia of uterine contractions. I never had the dream again after recognising it. Here is my psychological beginning: first memory, first trauma, first fear, the first distinction. Here is a value – I value not being crushed; I value the freedom of the un-contracting womb. Self, value, and psychological time come into existence with memory. I was un-constricted; I was constricted; I want to be un-constricted now, and I fear being constricted tomorrow.

I am so sensitive to my own pain, to my own fear and desire, that I give hardly a squirrel’s glance to the feelings of others. I cannot relate my time to geological time, the time that formed the rocks and fossils behind me, or even to the social time, a century and a half, that formed the town in front of me. How can I be concerned with the planet, when I haven’t even recovered from the trauma of birth? But I feel that trauma itself as a constriction, a limit to thought and feeling, which I want to be free of, and so I overlay this with a construction of ‘higher values’ – I want to be free of the constriction that my fear of constriction puts me under. But my higher values are merely the repetition of my primal fear – just another contraction on the road to the freedom of birth.

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