We live in an age of confusion. But perhaps we are always living in an age of confusion. Perhaps it’s just that the nature of the confusion changes from one century to the next, or perhaps from one decade to the next.
Yesterday I chanced across a young man giving a talk about Fermi’s Paradox. Enrico Fermi was a nuclear physicist. Yet he too seems to have suffered from confusion:
“Before I came here I was confused about this subject. Having listened to your lecture I am still confused. But on a higher level.”
Perhaps that’s how the nature of the confusion changes. We are always confused, but we become confused on a higher level. How reassuring.
Anyway, the “Fermi paradox” is the contradiction between the presumed probability of the existence of extraterrestrial life and the fact that contact has not been made. “Where is everybody?” Fermi asked.
I can’t say that it’s something I’ve ever thought about very much. But a great deal of Science Fiction supposes that the universe is full of all sorts extraterrestrial life forms. In Star Trek, the Enterprise is forever encountering them.
My own view is that since we have only just managed to get off the surface of our little planet after countless thousands of years of human existence, I wouldn’t expect any extraterrestrial life forms to have done very much better. So I have no expectation of ever seeing any extraterrestrials. Or not any time in the next 100,000 years or so.
But the young man giving the talk didn’t seem to agree. And one explanation that he had was that civilisations like ours very frequently wind up just blowing themselves up, and ceasing to exist. They’d get to a certain stage, and then “Boom!” And that was why we never encountered any of them.
This didn’t seem at all implausible. I spent many of the formative years of my life worrying that life on earth would come to an end in a nuclear war. I stopped worrying about it back in the 1970s, but these days with the renewal of the Cold War, and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un firing off missiles in all directions, and the general slow proliferation of nuclear weapons all over the world, the old worries are back.
Although looking on the bright side, nuclear war would bring about the abrupt end of the War on Smoking: we would have more important things to worry about than what people were smoking as we became re-acquainted with the Stone Age.
And this thought brings home how utterly small-minded the Tobacco Controllers are, that they have devoted their lives to getting people to stop drying and curing tobacco leaves, and smoking them in pipes. Whatever next? Will they initiate global campaigns to get people to hold their forks in their left hands, like so, and their knives in their right hands, like so. Does it really matter what hands people hold knives or forks or spoons in? Haven’t they got better things to worry about?
For I can’t help but think of someone like Deborah Arnott what an utterly wasted life hers has been. And Stanton Glantz’s. And all the rest of them. Some of these people might have done something new, or something beautiful. Instead they’ve devoted their lives to stopping other people smoking.
But perhaps it’s small-mindedness that will be the death of all of us, as war breaks out between the left-hand-fork-holders and the right-hand-fork-holders, or between clockwise-coffee-stirrers and anticlockwise-coffee-stirrers. Many of the debates that take place in Parliament seem to be on this level already. I can well imagine heated exchanges between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn about such mind-bendingly trivial concerns, with Jean-Claude Juncker weighing in from Brussels, and protesters in Paris and Berlin holding up forks in their right hands and twirling their left hands anticlockwise as they fight riot police
After all, the insults being traded between Donald Trump and Kim Jong UN are on about this level.
Since becoming president, Trump has engaged in an escalating war of words with Kim Jong-un, trading personal insults and threats of military strikes and raising concerns about an outbreak of hostilities.
Towards the end of his Asia tour, he sent a tweet from Hanoi that took the verbal jousting to a new level, taunting the North Korean leader over his height and weight.
“Why would Kim Jong-Un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat’?” he tweeted.
Isn’t it good to know that nuclear war may follow from one man calling another one “old” and the other one calling him “short and fat” in return? Which one will launch the nukes first? Perhaps this how all wars start? Maybe WW1 started when somebody told the Kaiser that he was a “pompous little cripple”, and WW2 only really got going when Hitler told Stalin that his moustache was “far too big and bushy.” Are there any better reasons for all-out war?
For every enlightened Buddha or Jesus or Lao Tzu it seems there are about ten million small-minded Deborah Arnotts fretting about whether people are smoking cigarettes, or holding their forks in the wrong hand, or stirring their coffee clockwise. And because such people always predominate, because there are so many of them, chances are that it will be a Deborah Arnott or a Stanton Glantz whose finger will usually be hovering over the nuclear button.
And since it seems to have taken the Buddha most of his life to have become enlightened, doesn’t that mean that he was unenlightened for most of his life, and quite likely as small-minded as any Deborah Arnott. Who knows, before he became enlightened, the Buddha may have been pestering everybody to keep their nails clean, and to wash behind their ears? And Jesus and Lao Tzu may have been no better. So even if it is Buddha or Jesus or Lao Tzu whose fingers hover over the nuclear button, it is more than likely that they’ll be the unenlightened (and small-minded) versions of them.
Perhaps we are all small-minded almost all of the time, and if we ever do manage to get our heads above water for a few minutes, we pretty soon get sucked back under.