Methinks it is very like a weasel
Baconian method – gathering of data, deductive hypothesis, experimental verification and peer review – has been so successful it has got us into a bad habit of thinking we know things. Well we do, but, contemporary science assures us, not very much. Most of the data we can’t gather – anyway yet – as 85% of matter is dark and we know almost nothing about it, and quantum physics tells us that on the wilder shores of reality our deductive logic does not run. How can an electron be in two places at once or effects cause causes? Take that Euclid. There is an interesting passage in John Carpenter’s book God’s Undertaker where he comments on a point Dawkins makes in, I think but anyway one of Dawkins’ loveliest books, Climbing Mount Improbable. Dawkins is answering the charge that random natural selection could not work because at any one point of genetic change nature had millions of possibilities to choose from and it is inconceivable that it (OK she, let’s go the whole metaphorical hog and fall back, with some embarrassment, on ‘the language of purpose’, much as a gang of foreign tourists in London might be forced to speak English between themselves as, even in its pidgin form, English was the only language they had in common) inconceivable that evolution could have got it right every time. Dawkins answers the charge by saying that evolution doesn’t, at any one point, have to choose between millions of possibilities. He takes as an analogy a phrase from Hamlet, ‘Methinks it is very like a weasel’ (though why Dawkins chose that phrase from millions of possibilities you do wonder). Nature only has to choose the letter M from the 26 letters in the alphabet plus a space and full stop, then E and so on until the whole phrase is assembled.
Carpenter’s objection is that M only has significance because it already belongs to the full phrase, even if, as yet, the thought of it is only in Shakespeare’s head. Otherwise it’s just an M floating in a free space of millions of possibilities. I think Dawkins would have a good answer to that. I think he’d say that in his infancy Shakespeare was not yet capable of thinking up ‘Methinks it is very like a weasel’ (even though you can imagine a proud mum rushing round the neighbours saying Our William has done awfully well in his English SAT tests), but he was capable of gurgling Mmmm and a bit later mouthing Me. The weasel thing was not yet even thought of. But maybe the important point is that both of them have got it wrong, because both of them take as certain the intellectual contexts that are not. Dawkins would say, doubtless, that science has not found ‘Methinks it is very like a weasel’ floating round in Shakespeare’s head. But then that sort of thing is not the sort of thing science sets out to find. And Carpenter would say that DNA is a language (Dawkins is telling us that the whole time) and Wittgenstein pointed out to us that languages only makes sense in what are already complicated contexts. “You’re a bent copper mate’ means something entirely different depending on whether I address it to somebody in a fancy dress party or to a member of the Metropolitan Police Force who is being accused of passing information to criminals. Clearly, to say DNA is a language is to use a metaphor. But then, contexts being already complicated, can you have language itself used as a metaphor that is not itself already a language? I’m not sure that question is answerable or even what it means. Like most of the ultimate questions – the big stuff – that science, and indeed life itself, throws up.