Monday, 23 December 2013

Nobody Knows!

There was (I thought) a very funny sketch on John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme on Radio 4 a while back, in which contestants enter a quiz called Nobody Knows! ("The game where your guess is as good as mine"). The answer to every question is, naturally, "nobody knows!"
Let's meet the contestants! Anne, you're a sleep therapist. Tell me, why do we dream?
Anne: Err... Nobody knows.
Presenter: Nobody knows! Richard! Hi! Why are you?
Richard: Very well, thank you.
Presenter: I said 'why are you?'
Richard: Oh, sorry. Nobody knows.
Presenter: Nobody knows! And Frank! Good to see you! Tell me, when will you die?
Frank: Nobody knows.
Presenter: Nobody knows
Et cetera.  As I say, very funny. But also (slipping into Thought for the Day mode) there's an underlying serious proposition here, as with all the best comedy.  Let's be honest, so much of what passes for intellectual life is little more than a leaden-footed attempt to circumvent that breezy, all-purpose answer to life's mysteries:  nobody knows!  Anyone who has brought up small children will know the vertiginous plummet, in the face of insistent questioning, from omniscience to angry bafflement.  "Because I say so!" is merely the authoritarian cover-version of "nobody knows!"  And much so-called knowledge is nothing more than the cover-story for the cover-version.

Virtually any question starting with "why" is doomed to end up neck-deep in the Slough of Despond, of course.  Religions, I am sure, were invented precisely to fend off annoying and unanswerable questions starting with "why".  The invocation of a Supreme Being -- particularly one with a penchant for smiting -- is the ultimate "Because I say so!"  But not to ask questions of authorities, real or imagined, is to let authorities off the hook too easily.  I think I have quoted Diderot before:  "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest".  An extreme view, but you can surely see his point.

To substitute "how" for "why" can be very enlightening, though, and can even lead in the end to genuine knowledge. Nobody may know, but somebody might be able to find out.  Science is clearly more a matter of asking "how" rather than "why", but to a large extent this substitution is also how psychotherapy works.  Rather than endlessly asking oneself, "Why, oh, why do I engage in this self-defeating behaviour?", one is encouraged to ask oneself the question, "How do I engage in this self-defeating behaviour?", and this is the first step on the road to stopping it.  Besides, nobody is going to pay a therapist £50 an hour just to be told, "Nobody knows!"

On the subject of avoiding unanswerable questions, though, the master was Buddha himself.  See my earlier post, Don't Ask Me.  And if, after reading that, you're wondering whether I'm ready to reveal my own third Undetermined Question, then I have to confess I can't now remember what it was.  Nobody knows!

New light on an old subject

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