The London casino as metaphor for discovering
the Useful Truth and making decisions
by Michael Brett
"Shall I get drunk or cut a piece of cake?"
Keith Douglas, war poet (1920-1944)
Historically, there have been two culturally dominant camps in the history of Philosophy. The first sees stability, order and stasis at the centre of human life and the Universe. Its central idea is that truth is accessible to reason, but hidden beneath the surface of daily life, and known only to initiates. The more modern developments, excluding Marxist Philosophy, see reality as vast, complex, subject to change, and not fully understandable.
The first group could rest upon ideas about God, or gods, or a variant of Platonic forms, or, perhaps, Mathematical or reductionist assumptions. The flux and movement of daily life and existence are somehow irrelevant, or unreal in the Hindu sense of Maya, a hollow world of pointless events which are, at best, shallow, and at worst, sinful. In the English speaking popular culture of the West, this idea survives in absent minded professors in films and stories, and the use of the word 'academic' as a synonym for 'irrelevant.'
Stasis, immobility, is particularly important, as permanence is linked with lack of motion in a kind of hierarchy of being, where motion is associated with mortality, and by extension, shallowness and lack of understanding by worldly and lower class people living in Time, who are not privy to the secrets of 'static' religious and philosophical systems. You could argue this from a Marxist perspective, and link the secret apparatus of priesthoods, kings and secret knowledge to a way of mystifying and deifying a ruling elite's grip over a subject population. Plato's forms, and the political myths to be taught in the Republic are obvious examples, as too are some aspects of the Christian Philosophies of Government and Politics that dominated Europe for centuries. In Thomist Philosophy God is fixed, motionless as a condition of his unending existence. So it is necessary for a dynamic form the Holy Spirit to initiate St Mary's pregnancy.
One of the most striking things about the Medieval world is the way that all areas of intellectual endeavor fit together: God, the celestial maps and fixed stars, the ideologies of kingship and religion, are all arranged in hierarchies based on immobility at the top, and movement at the bottom. Where there is movement, such as in the lives of Peasants, it is in great cycles of Church holy days, the seasons, sowing and harvesting, birth and death. In pictures, Kings and Popes sit still on thrones, and peasants till the fields. Universal knowledge is possible, and when found is to be fixed and unchanging. There is no such thing as new knowledge, only the recapitulation and rediscovery of the truths of the Ancient World, there is no search, only research.
The second group of Philosophies that lie closer to our time are very different. They make little or no claim to universal knowledge or understanding. For example, in Wittgenstein's beautiful and enigmatic work, it sometimes seems that he is saying that because human beings cannot understand everything, knowledge in itself is useless as it is always incomplete. Written in the context of the Age of the Dictators, it can be taken as a plea for sanity and tolerance in human affairs, but as a basis for action it seems like saying that half a loaf is the same as no bread.
In this sense, Wittgenstein is the intellectual descendant of Hume, whose position of questioning connections between cause and effect was revolutionary and necessary in the context of the Eighteenth Century, when scientific thought was emerging into a world of unproven assumptions and traditions; where farmers would not allow women in menses to enter a dairy, as their presence would curdle the milk; and according to Benjamin Franklin everyone believed that drinking strong ale made you strong, so that in the London of his time, very little work was done after eleven in the morning.
However while it is still valid that we should question all possible connections between items and events, in the wider world if you applied it universally it would be the intellectual equivalent of tone deafness, where people are unable to understand music because they cannot remember, or grasp, the connection between a series of musical notes. It may be possible that the cymbal I am hearing before the saxophone solo begins, is not part of my CD but is being played by the man practising next door, but it is not probable enough to affect my listening or enjoyment. In other words, I am taking a chance based in an assessment of probability assuming that I am hearing the CD for the first time. We are now entering the world of the roulette wheel and the chance encounter and outcome in human and scientific affairs.
I believe that gambling is so much part of human culture that we do not realise it. For example, in Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins, the standard work for Year One Archaeology Students, there is an examination of the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari ('!' represents a click vowel.) The bushmen in the study live at the technological level of the New Stone Age, and the men carry spears at all times. Initially, scientists expected them to have a lot of meat in their diets; in fact it turned out that they lived mainly on roots, fruit and berries and used the spears in gambling games, and only very occasionally went hunting which was largely done to break the routine of diet and daily existence, rather than to satisfy actual need.
Of necessity our knowledge is partial and incomplete. Our brains are finite and cannot process vast amounts of sensory and intellectual input. We are limited still further when compared to other species in the range of sounds and colours that we can experience. For example, a kestrel can track a rodent by seeing the glow of its residual body heat on blades of grass that it has walked over, moments earlier. Our sense of smell, compared to that of a fox, is non-existent. However, this does not mean that our knowledge though limited, is non-existent.
Using the mixed analogies of an honest casino, like Crockford's in London, where the cards are not rigged and the casino wheels are not subject to interference, and a pilot flying a Boeing 747, we can see knowledge and experience of the world operating at three levels:
Firstly there is the roulette table. This is game designed to fleece drunks of their money. Nothing that happens in this game is a guide to future outcomes. There is no pattern, save that of pure chance, to where the ball will land next time. It could be 19 black or 12 red. It is like Macbeth's view of the world: 'a tale told by an idiot...signifying nothing.'
Whatever facts or statistics you could write down, or remember about this game, none of these would help you win.
The second, and best game for amateur gamblers is 21. The outcomes are limited, and if you can remember the cards that were dealt previously, you can win small amounts which can add up to a lot over an entire evening, so long as you keep your nerve, and remember to walk away when you have won enough to make you happy. Here, previous events can affect future outcomes, providing that you remember what they are and, as a good follower of Pascal, work out your odds.
Then there is the pilot in his 747. The instruments in his cockpit represent true height, speed and position. This is necessarily reductive. He does not know the exact behaviour of all the quantum particles in either his aircraft or the air molecules around him, yet he knows enough to be able to perform his task of taking an aeroplane from Berlin Templehof to London Heathrow. This would seem, superficially, to be our position in life: we know where we live, what our salaries are, our general state of health, and something about the people with whom we live. We can make reasonable assumptions, like insurance assessors, over our chances making it to 65. Everything seems simple enough. Yet, we know, that real life is made up of a mixture of all these levels of predictability. The oldest woman in France, who died aged 109 last year, smoked cigarettes. The 747 we described can do a perfect take-off and run into clear air turbulence, this cannot be detected by radar or any modern instruments, and has the same effect as flying into a brick wall.
Everything we do, from taking a bath to watching television has levels of risk, which we routinely accept and balance against likely benefits or pleasures of some kind. This is what knowledge is: the Second World War may have really begun in 1940 and the Bronte Sisters may just have been a crowd of drunks who won their manuscripts in a poker game, but on the balance of the evidence we take a gamble on this not being the case. But it is a gamble, and we have no real way of knowing for sure unless we knew the Bronte sisters personally, and saw them writing, or were present in Europe in 1939.
As a huge leap, this is why in the folklore of flying nothing is hated or feared more than 'an infernal machine' with defective instruments, or, in the cultures and religions of most nations, the liar or traitor. The person who deceives us by feeding us false information, or tells others about us, strikes at the basis of our existence in a way that a known, even very dangerous enemy does not. The full fury of a conquered or occupied people does not turn on occupying troops nearly as much as informers from their own side.
Universal longing and demand for truth, and the hatred of lies, is not just a luxury for us, or an idealistic position for young people to hold, these are the conditions for our continued existence as a species, especially as we enter a time when almost anyone with a few thousand dollars can gain access to nuclear weapons, and religious and racial bigotry become part of conventional politics. The job of Philosophy, Science and Logic is to enable us to distinguish the useful truth from deliberate falsity, ignorance or distortion.
By useful truth I mean that which is full and accurate for the purposes of the task in hand. A screwdriver is a piece of metal with a wooden handle with a flattened blade. Its steel structure may have a particular atomic structure and quantum arrangement, but for my purpose, now, of mending a door, it is a screwdriver. The ace dealt to me on the green baize of Crockford's blackjack table may be just an arrangement of molecules and atoms of cellulose and printer's ink. This would not explain why I kiss it and jump in the air.
Philosophy should also be concerned with the useless truth. Supposing there were a group of people with no redeeming features whatsoever, not even to provide the rest of us with a sense of moral superiority, a negative example to our children or a good laugh at parties. Let us call them the Unpleasant. Should we risk social disorder by pointing out just how unpleasant the Unpleasant are, with their awful lurex tank tops and Chas and Dave records? Should we open special homes for the Unpleasant? This, again, is a gamble. We cannot look into the future and know for sure what the consequences will be of herding the Unpleasant together, they may grow more unpleasant. They may find each other so unpleasant that they all embrace celibacy rather than each other, and die out within a few decades, anything to avoid another glamorous granny or knobbly knees contest. Would it be therefore useless or useful to warn society of the dangers of mixed fretwork classes, or even marriage, with Unpleasant people? Or would it be better not to raise the issue at all?
Whatever our choice may be, the problem is dynamic and changing all the time. Some Unpleasant people could be attending charm school, in addition, some people classed as Unpleasant could only be borderline cases. There are also so many, that like Economics, we are forced to deal in generalities that may not be accurate enough to predict future outcomes. Wherever we are, it is long way from Plato and St Thomas Aquinas, and as I sit here, a meteorite may come through the window striking me on the head, killing me instantly. I am taking the chance that it will not happen.
© Michael Brett 2002