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The Sleep of Reason

Ignorance breeds answers, because man is an explaining animal.

It’s what we do. We throw up answers in the face of uncertainty—answers sometimes deemed ridiculous well after the fact—and hope they stick. It’s an ongoing and unending process. Aleister Crowley described it with a typographical metaphor in which an line of alternating question marks and exclamation marks—hunchbacks and soldiers—represented the unending inquiries and illuminations of human cognitive progress. Crowley mused that it would be wonderful if all our hunchbacks suddenly snapped to attention, like “presentable soldiers,” but as a skeptic, suggested that this was unlikely. Crowley then, as a mystic, made an end run around ad infinitum rational skepticism by proposing an almost epicurean technique to settling existential dilemmas: It’s true, he allowed, that he could not prove the existence of his friend Dorothy and her sausage sandwich, but, he rejoined, “It’s the taste I like.”

“Why not be a clean-living Irish gentleman,” he asked, “even if you do have insane ideas about the universe?”

A fair question, and a pointed one coming from a gent whom many contemporaries did in fact believe to be insane, however sophisticated. But don’t take it from the old Satanist, if he makes you uncomfortable; he was only rephrasing classical skeptical thought first articulated centuries earlier. The second-century Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus wrote similarly of the sweetness of honey, which is an accepted appearance, based on our senses, but not veridical enough to justify belief: “Holding to the appearances, then, we live without beliefs, but in accord with the ordinary regimen of life, since we cannot be wholly inactive.”

Yes, we can live in accord with the ordinary regimen of life, and still entertain our insane ideas about the universe. We can reach aporia, a bemused state, and ultimately ataraxia, a state of happiness caused by abandoning the evaluation of good and evil. We can indulge the hunchbacks, invite them in; because, when was the last time a soldier led you somewhere fun? Would you rather pound a sixer in a townie bar with a off-duty noncom in a Hawaiian shirt, or quaff homemade grappa, squeezed from the dregs, in a bell tower with a twisted romantic eager to tell you of his latest crush? You know, metaphorically speaking.

Sometimes answers have a soldierly belligerence, an authoritarian inflexibility. As when recently, for example, a Cyclops was discovered on Crete and the scientists tried to tell us it was an elephant skull.

It’s called Deinotherium Gigantisimum, and it was described as a “fearsome
elephant-like creature that might have given rise to ancient legends of one-eyed Cyclops monsters.” This whopping herbivore is supposed to have swum partway across the southern portion of the Aegean Sea from Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) to Crete. It is surmised that remains of these proto-pachyderms were discovered by ancient Greeks unfamiliar with such animals, and that the large median sinus cavity beneath the animal’s trunk was mistaken for a single eye socket.

Cool.

From this confusion, the thought is, came the legend of the Cyclops race, whose valorous service to Zens freed them from a subterranean banishment to become the blacksmiths to the Olympian gods.

Or maybe it was a cave elephant. Which do you prefer?

And then there’s the case of the ancient hominid skull found in North Carolina, which its discoverer believes “conclusively proves the presence of Early Man in Charleston County two million years ago.” Scientists at the Smithsonian Institute, to which the amateur archaeologist sent the remains for carbon dating, found the claims dubious and delineated their objections in a response that can now be found online. Among them:

1. The material is molded plastic. Ancient hominid remains are typically fossilized bone.

2. The cranial capacity of the specimen is approximately 9 millimeters, well below the threshold of even the earliest identified proto-hominids.

3. The dentition pattern evident on the “skull” is more consistent with the common domesticated dog than it is with the “ravenous man-eating Pliocene clams” you speculate roamed the wetlands at the time.

In conclusion, the respondent said that the institute would have to deny the request for carbon dating, and though he was intrigued by the man-eating-clam theory, he felt obligated to point out that “A) The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie that a dog has chewed on” and “B) Clams don’t have teeth.”

No, clams don’t have teeth, and that’s no more the skull of Early Charleston Man than it is the skull of a Cyclops. But they’re pretty good stories, aren’t they?

In Austria recently, a 700-year-old fresco was discovered that experts claim depicts St. Christopher in the company of a number of fawning fauna, including a weasel, which in medieval times was believed to give birth through its ears. The fresco, when uncovered, was the subject of much public debate, but not for its art-historical value or any revelation about ancient worldviews. The observations made were nowhere so provocative; they centered pretty much on the distinctive ears of the weasel. The comments were straightforward and soldierly:

“Hey, that thing looks just like Mickey Mouse!”

We can hold to the appearances, and live in accord with the ordinary regimen of life, but we should not be wholly inactive. We should still nurture our insane ideas about the universe because though they may not always be good, it’s the taste we like.

—John Rodat


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