I have missed these ranting non-fictions in my busy, work-absorbed days. Of course, that in itself deserves a rant – but I wont because most people know all about that anyway. And most people agree. But that’s fine. I have plenty of other stuff to talk about, so it is with a small warm feeling in my heart that I settle down again and start typing . . .
In this case, I want to point my guns at something pretty fundamental: The concept of ‘never.’
And its close cousin, zero.
Actually, zero is quite an alien concept. It was a long time indeed before it really entered our awareness. I am not sure where and with who zero first came into use – but I do know that the mathematical concept at least eluded the ancient Greeks, with all their sophistication. Even now it typically takes human babies at least 3-4 years to grasp the concept. But what about ‘never’? What are we to make of that? Is that a recent concept too? Something that came to us as a relatively late development, like zero? True ‘never’, as the concept of an absence, is actually quite a sophisticated concept, since it involves an awareness of things that ‘are not’. An imagination and story-telling ability in a way. But of course, a new concept quickly comes along with the idea of ‘never – never as an instruction as opposed to an imaginary concept. Something that is ‘never done’ or which ‘should never happen’, which is somewhat different and involved a moral judgment. As an instruction or self-instruction, the word implies a sense of how to do things – a primitive ‘law’ or ‘creed’ attitude almost. So perhaps one can speculate that the instruction ‘never’ and the first primitive ideas of morals, codes and ‘ways to do things’ more or less evolved together. And these days, of course, we have evolved the concept of ‘never’ into more and more ‘sophisticated’ forms. We have laid down a system of laws that has only grown more and more complex and detailed – and all based on this basic concept. However, in all that evolution, we seem to have overlooked one rather important point that people are only just beginning to realise.
‘Never’ does not actually exist.
Philosophically, socially, even scientifically, the term is just a meaningless infinite – and we don’t live in an infinite world in that sense. The mere concept of ‘never’ is a fallacy – something that contradicts its own attempt at meaning. Never is an absolute – and it is easy to demonstrate that an absolute is something that does not exist in the world around us. Science used to think it was absolute, but with the rise of quantum, m-theory and the most complex and esoteric areas of modern physics, those absolutes are crumbling. An example is the speed of light, which used to be though of as a constant and absolute – one of the great absolutes in fact – so much so that it has become one of our most fundamental measuring utilities. Light speed is 670,616,629.45 miles an hour and a light year is therefore 5,878,625,373,183.61 miles. Wrong. The slowest light has been observed to move is, I think, about 38 miles per hour – and many areas of physics now seem to be pushing towards ways to break the upper limit and exceed ‘light speed’.
In terms of human behaviour, ‘never’ crumbles much more easily than in science. Humans cant do [such and such]. Humans shouldn’t do [such and such]. And, above all, ‘I would never do [such and such]‘ and ‘You should never do [such and such] . . . all these are fallacies. Let’s just think about what ‘never’ means. ‘Never’ is an expression of infinity. It states that in all the vast life of the universe, in all its immeasurable complexity – and more to the point, in the vast and just as immeasurably complex world of humans and human behaviour – this thing, concept, action, event, whatever, WILL NOT happen. How, I ask myself, can any human being ever dare to use the word? What is actually meant of course is ‘I cannot imagine this happening’ or plainly ‘I don’t want it to happen’. But that is a different thing entirely, and neither eliminates the thing from possibility, which has to be remembered. When applied to a moral or a law, whether personal or cultural, the same thing applies and the same results are achieved. ‘Never’ states that such a thing may NEVER happen – never be justified I suppose, in this case – to infinity. No circumstances, no matter how convoluted, can justify it and therefore it is an absolute evil, regardless of circumstances. For the same reasons, this simply does not fit analysis. How can anyone or any system claim to have understood the complexity of humanity to the extent of applying an infinite to it? Such a claim is inevitably a lie – and yet this is what humanity tries to do in almost the whole of our history and life.
Of course, so far, I could be accused of nitpicking. Taking the word too literally perhaps? But to my mind, the fact that ‘never’ does not actually exist – and, if you will, that ‘never’ does not actually mean never even though people pretend that it does, is of crucial importance. In a way, it invalidates the whole thing, because if it is a lie, then where does that lie stop? What’s the point of saying or believing in never at all? In my own approaches to things, I always like to follow thought processes and ideas through to their conclusion if I can (bloody hard though), and the realisation that never doesn’t exist, opens up a huge world of possibilities. Thinking about things in a world without absolutes changes one’s attitudes to almost everything – both on a personal and a cultural level. It means the overthrow of absolute right and wrong – absolute beliefs and absolute ways of doing things. It is as defunct as the concept of evil as an absolute. In fact, I defy anyone to think of any possible thought or action or event that justifies the term never. Anyone who says ‘I would never do that’ instantly starts me thinking of circumstances when such an action would indeed occur – and always they are there somewhere. It may be unlikely or undesirable. The thought of that actually happening to you might be very distressing even – but the fact that it is not impossible means that it could happen, and as such, should be thought about and accepted as such.
A silly example from a recent conversation on this very subject: “Well – I think I could say that I would never change my name to Nigel.” “Suppose I offered you a million pounds?” “Oh – well – in that case . . .” Of course – I am not going to offer a million pounds – so this friend will, in all probability NOT change his name to Nigel . . . but still, the word never does not apply. Another example. The vegetarian who insists they would never eat anything with eyes. Well – point one: I am sure you would if reduced to desperation. Being able to really choose what you eat is very much a luxury and if you are starving you will eat what you can get and discover how profound human needs are, believe me! Point two: Almost certainly you will have ALREADY have eaten things with eyes. I once saw a statistic for the number of tiny spiders etc that are accidentally swallowed while asleep. That may or may not be true and no one seems to agree on the number – though I don’t have too much of a problem believing it. Those tiny spiders get everywhere and could easily end up falling into your mouth while asleep. But what IS undeniable is the number of tiny things – spiders, insects, mites etc – inhaled or taken in with food etc, either on your plate or in the factory. Most of them have eyes and know how to use them. So once again, ‘never’ bites the dust. A more extreme example: ‘I would never kill someone’. True – you are probably not likely to and don’t want to – but even something like that is perfectly possible if the circumstances were right. It is a part of being human. It is an interesting if macabre mental exercise to analyse yourself by imagining such possibilities and what could lie behind them. They are always there and finding them can tell you a lot about how you work and how the world as a whole works. Much better than blanket ignoring the whole subject because you don’t find it ‘acceptable’, don’t you think! And MUCH better than blanket condemnation of something because you don’t really like to think about it. That’s the worst of all.
Under what circumstances would you commit a murder? What would drive you to suicide or rape? What would make you like a soap opera? And don’t come back with never for any of them – never doesn’t exist, remember?
These, of course, are extremes. The same thing applies to such things as ‘I would never eat cabbage’, ‘I would never visit Ipswich’ or ‘I would never sleep with you’ . . .
What I am saying, in a nutshell, is that surely it is better to think things through and accept the possibility of unusual things occurring – along with their likelihood and desirability – and thus accepting them as valid. Without ‘never’, suddenly ‘perhaps’ becomes closer and more inviting. And ‘perhaps’ is a lovely word. Much more refreshing and open-minded than ‘never’. ‘Perhaps’ is a word that signifies thought and consideration – and striving towards understanding of a situation based on its own characteristics. Perhaps – perhaps not. But at least you are thinking about it.
The same thing holds true on a cultural level. And of course, the cultural incarnation of ‘never’ is the law and justice system. The problem with this ‘never’ attitude here – to regulating what people do – is exactly the same as personal condemnation (only more destructive. It is like a polyhedral form – a solid shape of flat, regular faces, that is struggling to be a sphere. All history has demonstrated that human life is not a thing of regular shapes – those absolutes again. To begin with, the system of laws was simple – like an icosahedron perhaps. Big simple concepts of absolute ‘do not’s shaped like triangles. But of course, as humanity progressed, it began to realise that humans actually weren’t icosahedral! So the system was refined. More faces were added and it became more varied. And so the progress has continued. In its constant struggle to accurately fit the world, the legal system has added more and more faces of increasing complexity until now we are presented with a ridiculously protracted and draconian monster of a shape with thousands and thousands of faces on a myriad different shape. An insane mass of complexity that it is impossible for any one person to understand. True – it is a lot more round than the original icosahedron – but one of the basic features of a polyhedral form is that no matter how much you truncate it and add new faces, it can never equal a sphere. To do that, it would have to become infinite – like ‘never’ itself – and I have already insisted that infinite is not a safe concept for humans!!
‘Never’ is a polygon. A concept that is great for maths – but is of limited use for describing the real world.
Humans have curves.
It’s a simple concept. Get used to it! No matter how much detail you write into a rigid system to try and make it fit – it can never approximate a curve.
That said – and it really isn’t that strange an idea – why is it that humanity seems so keen to chain themselves to these absolutes? Even though they are fake, and most people know it somewhere in their hearts. People seem very blithe in accepting the bondage of a polyhedral law and personal outlook – a world of ‘thou shalt not’s, never and zeros. It’s an ancient instinct – to try and regulate how the world works. I suppose people try and seek comfort in it – forging a kind of world where at least people know how things function, what to do and what not to do . . . but the comfort of what is still a false idea?
At least – they accept it perhaps until they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of it. Caught on a vertex, perhaps. Then they realise how dangerous a polyhedron can be! But of course, no one pays any attention to them then . . .
There seems to be a wind of change breathing through the UK, however – and perhaps elsewhere. You can feel it in the message boards and blogs. An exasperation is developing against a system of laws and society that is seen as increasingly rigid and unhelpfully absolute – exasperation as yet another zero-tolerance policy is announced or yet another ban is slung out to try and reign in the small part of what is banned that is actually harmful – slowly eroding all our respect for the law in the process. So perhaps people are finally beginning to chafe against the bonds of the polyhedron. And perhaps this means that eventually the out-dated rigid system that surrounds us, so reliant on zeros and nevers to cure all ills, can be overthrown and replaced by something that fits us much better. Something curved, perhaps. It is about time. Humanity is quite capable of making the step forward that is required. I am not talking about some esoteric utopia. We could do it tomorrow if we wanted. It simply requires an understanding and acceptance of the human system – how people work, and how complex our interactions actually are. And that ‘never’ doesn’t exist.
Never say never!!