21 June 2007

The limits of human knowledge

Every once in while, commuting home, I encounter a strange singing duo on Kingston Loop. They have been going a long time now - it might be 15 years since I first saw them - and I'd put them in their 50s or 60s. They make money not from guilt or embarrassment in the way that the young hostel-seekers do, but from their humour: They earn their crust from comedy songs with strange lyrics and not-bad-harmonies, backed up by a thin-sounding guitar; they accept Luncheon Vouchers and Rupees and they collect their money in an omelette pan; they are probably at least half mad; I like them.

They only have two songs, the first is called "This Train" and is a duet:
"This train......."
(...calls at Vauxhall, Queenstown Road, Clapham Junction, Wandsworth Town...)

"This train...."
(...is composed of eight coaches and you'll find the guard situated in the middle carriage)

"This train.....".
(...has first class accommodation, for first class ticket-holder only)

"This train....."
They rarely get through the song without being drowned out by the on-board tannoy, which, of course, is the whole point.

I thought of those two, last Tuesday night, while I was listening to the three-quarters-crazy David Gamez opine on the Limits of Human Knowledge at the ICA
"Can you go a go a bit slower, please" was the first question from the floor, as an excitable Gamez rattled through slides of impenetrable powerpoint, gabbling in incomprehensible philosoperese
(....,nonotreallyiveonlygoteightminutestosumupabout300pagersofmynewbooksoI'mjust goingtothrowthisatyouandhopeyougethegistofit")

"Only five minutes, now"), piped up the chairman, helpfully
Just 2 minutes - but fully 17 slides - previously, Gamez had told us there was no such thing as objective time but now, in the face of a watch and an impatient chairman, he folded completely and - was it possible? - he speeded up
(...however, positive scepticism is self-reflexively challenged because it does not place the aspect of positive scepticism above others. This forces the positive sceptic to endorse aspects that directly challenge it, and positive scepticism is led by its own arguments into an unstable sustaining/ negating relationship with the labyrinth of theories around it)
You are quite right: I didn't note that down, I copied it off his website, but I swear that's what he said. He also said that there's no such thing as truth; there's no such thing as knowledge and he couldn't be at all certain that we were real people, rather than aliens.

That last thought was entirely mutual, and there's not a speaker in the land who wouldn't have given an arm and leg to follow a performance as poor as Gamez.

Apart, that is, from Mark Vernon, former priest turned "passionate agnostic" who was next up and who read, entirely devoid of passion, from his script about....well I forget. Or Stuart Sim who promised belligerent atheism, but never came close.

It was a relief when we got to artist (and not philosopher) Emma Kay, who makes art ("digital print, on paper", I ask you) which explores the depths of her own ignorance. The Bible from Memory, Shakespeare from Memory, History from Memory, The Complete Series Two of the Catherine Tate Show from Memory. (OK I made the last one up). Odd, yes, but also oddly compelling, and at least she made sense.

As did - to be fair - the coherent, logical, lyrical and plausible chairman Hilary Lawson, a man whose promise was seemingly cut short in the Lower 6th when he encountered Epimenides' Paradox in a vulnarable moment, and has never being able to shrug it off since.
"The trouble with saying that there is no such thing as objective truth", he lamented, plaintively, "is that the statement in itself sounds awfully like a claim to be an objective truth".
A logical black hole, with a whats-the-point horizon which even a long career in philosophy has not equipped him to overcome.

If there is a limit to human knowledge, it's certain Google haven't heard of it and by the miracle of the net, and the power of Google, the other hit of of the singing duo on the Kinsgton Loop is actually available for you to hear (hat-tip to the OCD-fascinating London Underground blog)

It's a protest song. A protest against not being allowed to have a wash and shave in toilets at Waterloo
"for if you can't have a shave in a toilet", they sing, "then where can you have a shave?"
Now that's question to which answer really is beyond the limits of human knowledge.

1 comment:

annie mole said...

Cool - many thanks for the acknowledgement

All the best