Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Don't Ask Me

I have always liked the idea that the Buddha regarded certain questions as unanswerable: the so-called "Undetermined Questions." That is, when asked these particular questions, he simply said ... nothing. Depending on which tradition you listen to, there are either fourteen or ten such questions, but to a hyper-logical Western mind there seem at root really only to be four questions, which have been expanded -- in what seems like an anticipation of the user-satisfaction questionnaire -- by the addition of supplementaries, so that "Is the world finite? Or not? Or both? Or neither?" counts as four questions. If you added "At weekends?" I suppose there'd be five.

But the core questions are:

Is the world eternal?
Is the world finite?
Is the self identical with the body?
Does an enlightened being exist after death?

All good questions, but you can see why the Buddha might choose to stare meaningfully into the distance at that point. In many ways, this is a more helpful response than the wheel-spinning scholasticism of the Christian church grappling with such questions, or the linguistic nit-picking of philosophers in later centuries. It's not quite "Don't know, don't care" but you can imagine a certain amount of serene finger-tapping going on whenever those questions came up.

At the risk of offending the adherents of one of the world's senior religions, I have some Undetermined Questions of my own. That is, questions I have asked myself to which, I am now satisfied, there is no useful or meaningful answer. I'm sure you have some, too.

1. Why, uniquely amongst canned goods, are tins of tomatoes almost always dented? No-one seems to know (or, at least, my letters and emails on the subject are never answered). I have speculated that perhaps -- for some obscure, historical reason of tradition -- they are meant to be dented. Perhaps it is someone's job to put a ding in each can, and the undinged ones are, in fact, the aberration? Undetermined. The Man From Del Monte, he say Nothing.

2. How is it that folly may be expressed using exactly the same language -- using precisely the same rules of grammar and even the same logical constructions -- as wisdom, to the extent that the two are indistinguishable, linguistically? Or, as Noam Chomsky once wrote:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

You would have thought -- language being as much a part of the evolutionary heritage of humans as two fully-fitted feet, both pointing the same way -- that some evolutionary mechanism would have implanted Idiocy Checks into language. At the very least, you would have expected that the first fool who insisted "There is absolutely no reason not to believe eating all red berries is safe: all the evidence points that way" would have been beaten to death with his own digging stick, thus removing one species of idiocy from the gene pool. Perhaps he was, but maybe we're just too amused by famous last words stories, thus needlessly preserving and re-infecting the language with fatal linguo-memes.

But language, regrettably, has no such safety checks. It's all very well for William Blake to pronounce "A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees", but they both use the same words equally as convincingly and, of course, it's usually the plausible fool who gets the job as Tree Inspector. Perhaps humour is our only defense against this sort of thing. Indeed, it may be the closest mechanism we've yet evolved to a linguistic idiocy check.

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana
Groucho Marx

3. What ... No, I'll save that one for a future post. It's a tricky subject.

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