First published on BlogCritics 5 April 2006
I have long been a great fan of Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) and (albeit not for quite so long) of Douglas N. Adams (1952 – 2001). By today’s standards, neither could reasonably be deemed a raving or maniacal spokesman for the Loony Left or for the Righteous Right; nor, for that matter, for the Mundane Middle. They were, nevertheless, among the greatest minds of the last century.
Having nothing at all better to do (the rainy season having just begun with a bang — I think it was thunder), and feeling excessively spiritual, I decided to attempt to channel both, in a sort of simultaneous seance, to find out what they might have to say about Life, the Universe and Everything in this age of unprecedented peace and prosperity. A transcript of the seance follows. Uhs, ahs, ummmms and What the Fucks have been redacted for purposes of clarity, brevity, and inoffensiveness.
Seance Chairman (SC): Good evening, Lord Russell, Mr. Adams. It is a pleasure to have both of you appear. To begin: you, Lord Russell died before Mr. Adams had written much of note. You, Mr. Adams, were a young man of eighteen when he passed. Is it therefore reasonable to assume that you two never met?
Lord Russell (LR): No, on Earth we unfortunately didn’t. However, we have all of the popular writings, BBC programs and that sort of thing here. Time hangs heavy, and I have read all of his fiction and non fiction. I occasionally wrote a bit of fiction myself (Satan in the Suburbs comes regrettably to mind), but Mr. Adams beat me hands down. Although his serious writing is neither as technical nor as obscure as mine, I do think that for someone not rigorously trained in either mathematics or philosophy, he gets his points across remarkably well. At least, I think I understand most of it.
Douglas Adams (DNA): Thank you kindly, Lord Russell. I was quite surprised to find my scribblings here, along with your own. I was, from my youth, one of your admirers, and think that I profited greatly from some of your more, shall we say, popular writings. Your Outline of Intellectual Rubbish and Why I am Not a Christian are among my favorites. As you may know, I was a Radical Atheist. My funeral was at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, an Anglican church; opening and closing remarks were by the Reverend Mr. Anthony Hunt; a bunch of religious songs and Richard Dawkins were somehow squeezed (uncomfortably, I suppose) in the middle. So, I guess few things make much difference at the end.
SC: I am very pleased to have you both. Now, if you will, some questions. I hope to turn this into an article grounded in politics, broadly speaking. So, if there are no violent objections, can we talk about that?
DNA: Oh, [redacted] grumble [redacted] [inaudible]
LR: Well, if we must. Can we please keep it short? My seventeenth wife is waiting, and I do want to get back to her. She’s heavenly, and I don’t want what happened with some of my earthly wives to repeat.
SC: Very well then; on with it. Lord Russell, back in 1959, you opined on “Methods of Settling Disputes in the Nuclear Age.” There, you dealt with the then few nuclear powers, each capable of obliterating the others, and everyone else besides. You assumed decent levels of rationality and enlightened self interest, along with no side having any predisposition toward suicide, mutually assured or otherwise. Is that a brief, but fair synopsis?
LR: Well, yes I suppose it is. But in my defense, I was writing half a century ago and things have gone skittering down hill ever since. Now, all manner of paranoid lunatics have, or are close to having, nuclear capabilities or worse; what little rationality there once may have been has rather gone out the window. I very much doubt that the big powers will go off on a nuclear frolic — for about the same reasons I stated back in 1959. However, the chances of a cascading nuclear exchange are increasing dramatically as more suicidal maniacs get the stuff, and there is probably very little that the diminishing numbers of sensible people can do to keep them from getting or using it. I certainly wish there were, if for no other reason than that it’s already far too crowded here and the simultaneous migration of several billion souls would be highly unsettling.
SC: Do you have any advice?
LR: Get rid of the damn things and revert to nineteenth century weaponry. You might as well try to eliminate the suicidal lunatics. Fat chance of either, however. As Mr. Adams might say, the chances against it are two to the power of fifty-thousand and rising. I don’t know what else to say. I was on my way to Trondheim, back in 1948, to make what I considered some brilliant remarks on the prevention of war, and was nearly drowned in consequence. In my later years, some didn’t care for my peace efforts and called me a “very intelligent old silly.” I disagreed with the “silly” part then, but didn’t mind the very intelligent or old bits. Now, I’m not as sure as I was then that the “silly” part was inaccurate.
SC: Mr. Adams?
DNA: I don’t know. Perhaps find a way to migrate to an alternate universe? In the Hitchhikers’ Guide five-book trilogy, I dealt briefly with the inhabitants of the planet Krikkit. They had had absolutely no contact with other beings, and were mild, untroubled creatures. When contact with other beings was finally thrust upon them, they simply couldn’t deal with it. They therefore became very war-like and entirely dedicated to the destruction of all (other) intelligent life in the Universe. They rapidly put together the equipment to do so. They were eventually subdued and their planet was sealed in a Slo-Time envelope, within which everything proceeded v e r y s l o w l y, to remain there until the end of the universe, when Krikkit would emerge (briefly) and be the only planet in the universe. Unfortunately, they got free prematurely and went off doing the same things again. Probably should just have slaughtered the whole lot in the first place and had done with it.
SC: So, Mr. Adams, do you suggest genocide for the emerging nations which now have or are getting nuclear and other massively destructive weapons capabilities for offensive use?
DNA: I deny it, although the Krikkiters may have had a point. Can we change the subject?
SC: I understand. Let’s talk about the accelerating changes in the global economy. Lord Russell, you were a Socialist, but denied being a Communist. You wrote Why I Am Not a Communist in 1956. In it, you said,
In relation to any political doctrine there are two questions to be asked: (1) Are its theoretical tenets true? (2) Is its practical policy likely to increase human happiness? For my part, I think the theoretical tenets of Communism are false, and I think its practical maxims are such as to produce an immeasurable increase in human misery.
Where do you think we are now heading? Mr. Adams, please chime in as you wish.
LR: I don’t think there are credible arguments that the world is on the road to Communism; that has failed rather miserably wherever it has been attempted. Socialism is a different matter, and I think the world is becoming more socialist daily. In my youth, I was perhaps overly impressed with the beauty and efficacy of mathematics, and envisioned central control of worker-owned means of production as quite promising. Now, Chaos theory seems to have overtaken earlier and more rigid mathematical notions about how things work, and I am no longer as confident of the efficacy of central planning as I once was. Actually, I think the notion is a bit of rubbish. There seem to be an infinite number of variables, and the complexities of their interaction seem greater than those impacting on climate. Humankind has great difficulty accurately predicting weather more than a few hours in advance, and predicting changes in climate within a far more expansive time frame appears to be well nigh impossible. Yet, weather and climate are comparatively simple things, as they involve neither human thought nor human emotion. Satisfactory central control of production, it seems to me, would involve not only a number of variables comparable to weather and climate forecasting, but in addition those involved in actually affecting weather and climate in the desired direction. And, of course, it would additionally require the understanding and quantification of human thought and emotion. Add to this the vast numbers of people living in the United States alone, and the even more vast numbers elsewhere who impact on what needs be produced, how and when, and the complexity becomes even more mind boggling. I very seriously doubt that even Mr. Adams’ Deep Thought computer would be up to the task. I have come, tentatively at least, to the view that tremendous quantities of small, incremental human decisions and actions are more efficacious than any form of central planning of which Humankind is now, or is likely anytime soon to be, capable.
DNA: I first took notice of small, potentially useful, computers when I met the Commodore Pet. It was an interesting toy. It’s use then seemed limited to arithmetical manipulations. Over the years, the capabilities and usefulness even of small personal computers have increased, oh, I suppose, at least exponentially. No matter how wonderful and complex they and their gigantic semi-cousins become, however, the old GIGO rule applies. You feed in garbage, and that’s what comes out; vastly changed and possibly unrecognizable as garbage, but garbage none the less. If Deep Thought were provided non-garbage input, I suppose it might be possible for it (in less than ten million years) to provide useful guidance. So, I suppose Lord Russell and I may disagree on the calculating bit but not on the outcome of the calculating.
SC: Tangentially, what do you think of the current controversy over ways to halt the menace of Man Made Global Warming, as the notion is espoused by Vice President Gore?
DNA: [chuckle, choke, gasp.]
SC:Well, if you insist. But back on track, don’t the governments of the advanced countries of the world need to guide the vastly selfish private commercial enterprises with sufficient firmness to ensure that they do more good than harm?
LR: Permit me to go first, please. The question contains one articulated, and one unarticulated, major premise. Both are fallacious. As to the second, viz, that governments, and therefore those who run them are, ipso facto, blessed with greater skill and knowledge than other people: I am unaware of any reason at all to accept this thesis. The pool from which governments draw their employees is no different from the pool from which non-governmental entities select theirs. In fact, it is the same pool, and the selection process for government employees is hardly superior. The articulated premise, that government employees possess a higher quality of benignity than is found elsewhere, seems equally fallacious. In a speech I delivered in 1950, I suggested that there are four politically important desires (beyond the bare necessities of life): acquisitiveness, rivalry, vanity and love of power. Obviously, these desires are related to each other and they also actuate people who do not — who do not even want to — work for a government. However, they are at their most dangerous in those who do work for a government. Vanity and love of power on the part of a President of the United States, for example, can be far more egregious than vanity and love of power on the part of the president of a major corporation; and not only because the President of the United States can sometimes fire the president of a major corporation. No. It is because the president of a country already has tremendous power, and is likely to feel a great need for more. True, those who have great financial wealth often devote their lives to acquiring more; acquisitiveness grows with what it feeds on. However, the acquisition of even greater wealth is probably less injurious than the acquisition of even greater power.
DNA: I like that; the analysis, that is. Is it possible, do you suppose, that the Galactic Federation had the right idea? Having a president with no power of any sort whatever, just lots of dash and even more vanity-satisfying glory?
LR: You mean like the royal family in England?
DNA: Almost, but not quite exactly unlike that; it might possibly be fun if the Queen were to steal a spaceship as the President of the Imperial Galactic Government, Zaphod Beeblebrox, once did. I guess it’s possible that President Obama’s recent IPOD gift to the Queen may have some segments of Hitchhiker’s Guide, although I doubt it.
SC: It’s time to wrap up this discussion. Let me ask you, can the world extricate itself from the multiple difficulties now besetting it?
DNA: I rather doubt it. However, the more important question is whether it should. Is the preservation of man and of his societies really the ultimate good? I know of no overwhelming reason to assume so. In any event, there are simply too damn many of us for the planet to support, as we seem to wish it to continue doing forever. Right now, the Earth’s population is about 6.77 billion; nine billion is the estimate for 2040. Sure, the increase may be slowing a bit, but over two billion more people in less than thirty years? That increase is equal to the entire world population a year or so before Lord Russell got the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 1950. Come on. This can’t go on indefinitely without significant reductions. Still, should society as we know it come to a crashing stop, enough people would probably survive to start all over and begin again by banging rocks together. If not, maybe the dolphins would give it a try; or the mice. Surely, there is plenty of time for that before the planet boils or freezes or is atomized while being sucked into a black hole where the sun used to be.
LR: In theory, the earth could be made pleasantly habitable for even the distant future if people were actuated by enlightened self interest. Except possibly for a few saints, they are not. In the 1950 speech I referred to a few moments ago, I closed with the observation that
the main thing needed to make the world happy is intelligence. And this, after all, is an optimistic conclusion, because intelligence is a thing that can be fostered by known methods of education.
Unfortunately, methods of education have, over the intervening almost sixty years, deteriorated disastrously and the numbers of people to be educated have increased also disastrously. On balance, I vote for the mice.
SC: Just one more tangent, if you don’t mind. LR, you seem to claim that education has gone to the dogs of late. How so?
LR: Well, probably not literally to the dogs. Dogs are probably about as intelligent, achieving and loving as they were when I was young. They probably haven’t changed much since one of my ancestors helped to get the Corn Laws repealed. True, many more people can hang college diplomas on their walls than fifty years ago; some can even read and understand them. I understand that you, Mr. Seance Chairman, can’t read yours simply because it is in Latin. Be that as it may, the absolute number of college graduates who know what they are about, why they got there, or what to do about it does not seem to have increased noticeably; the percentage actually seems to have decreased. Back in 1916, I wrote a treatise titled Education. There, I contended that
If the children themselves were considered, education would not aim at making them belong to this party or that, but at enabling them to choose intelligently between the parties; it would aim at making them able to think, not at making them think what their teachers think. Education as a political weapon could not exist if we respected the rights of children. If we respected the rights of children, we should educate them so as to give them the knowledge and the mental habits required for forming independent opinions; but education as a political institution endeavours to form habits and to circumscribe knowledge in such a way as to make one set of opinions inevitable.
True, religious instruction and the inculcation of patriotism are no longer common in Western societies. Both are widespread in Islamic countries, which I consider unfortunate. Thirty-some years later, in 1950, in The Functions of a Teacher,I complained that schools tended to try valiantly to inculcate patriotism. Now, it seems that the pendulum has swung off in the other direction and that anti-patriotism and the idea that “We are always wrong” is being inculcated. Neither is good. Currently, many television news presenters and commentators appear to believe that teaching some political philosophy or other is their function; at least it is possible to turn them off without being sent to detention for misbehavior. A fantastic teacher I once had suggested that history should be well learned; only after it has been well learned, should anyone try to twist it to suit his purposes. Twisting is bad enough, but twisting erroneous information is far worse and all too common.
DNA: I was largely a product — by-product may be a better way of putting it — of the British educational system, against which I rebelled by trying to be funny; my writings have been described as “quirky,” and I suppose they were. Our educational systems do seem to be producing extraordinary numbers of automatons, a process which is accelerated by the entertainment alternatives enjoyed by many. It can’t be all that bad, though, because I sold a lot of books. My favorite, Last Chance to See didn’t do nearly as well as the less socially oriented ones. That may have been a good thing, now that I think about it.
SC: Thank you very much, gentlemen. Perhaps in your eons of leisure time you may wish to continue this discussion. For now, we must stop.