The major problem afflicting human beings is that we have universal minds trapped in local circumstances. Other species have brains that are instinctive and algorithmic. They are presented with a stimulus and their brains re-act to it in a pre-determined way. But ours are different. Our brains are infinitely flexible and there is theoretically no limit to the thoughts that we might think and the knowledge we might acquire. But we are never in the right place, some library of infinite knowledge perhaps, to acquire it, and even if we were we would not have time to do so. Thus our actions are always drastically under-informed, for how many of them would we have changed if we had known what we know now, let alone known all that there is to be known. Yet at the same time, because if we choose A we cannot choose B, they are universally decisive. I can no more change the fact that I chose to have a lettuce sandwich yesterday rather than a ham one than I can change Newton’s laws of motion. Suppose that you are lying in bed on Sunday morning trying to decide whether to get up and go to church or not. Do you believe in God? Good question.
Could the atheists be right? You certainly ought to read Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Religion and perhaps it would be no bad thing to give The God Delusion another go. What about the other side? If you do believe in religion which should it be? You really must start grappling with the vast literatures of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, let alone Wicca and South Sea Island polytheism. Suppose one divides the problem up to make it more manageable. Could the Christian gospels be true? You have heard rumours that even the parsons no longer believe that Jesus was born in a stable and that there were three kings. So which bits do you have to believe? There are at least fifty books of modern biblical criticism listed on Amazon. With which should one start? But of course, you do none of these things. You make up your mind in the light of what knowledge you have.
Or consider Asquith’s cabinet meeting on the evening of July 29th 1914 to decide whether to go to war against Germany or not. Of course, they would have done well to ponder Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war and the parallels it might offer to a new European conflict. They certainly should have read Clausewitz in order to size up the German Schlieffen plan. Perhaps they might even have held things up while they read Das Kapital, in order to assess Marx’s grim prophecy that under conditions of late monopoly capitalism the capitalist nations would go to war and destroy both each other and themselves, thus giving the revolutionary proletariat its opportunity. But of course, the cabinet did none of these things. On August 4th, by the narrowest of margins they decided to go to war in the light of the information they had, thus changing the world for ever. It was a particularly arresting example of TMS. All listeners to cricket commentaries on the radio know that TMS stands for Test Match Special. The programme is so wonderfully relaxing because, while listening to it, you can leave aside your own anxieties and pre-occupations and enter the total cricket world of Aggers and Blowers. There is an occasional mention of golf, Blowers even sometimes talks about buses and pigeons and I once even heard him wistfully comment that the number of runs a particular batsman had scored was the same as the school number he was given at his prep school, but otherwise this is a self-contained totalizing thought world.
The issues here are whether Anderson will be able to reverse swing he ball, and whether both run outs and lbw’s should be referred to visual technology and a third umpire. But in fact we all live in totalising exclusive thought worlds because our universal minds, these infinitely wonderful agents that when untrammelled can so infinitely wander, operate in physical bodies limited to a particular time and place. We can roam through infinite space but are bounded in a nutshell, says Hamlet, expressing this native frustration of the human condition memorably well. In fact Test Match Special is a particular instance of a far wider version of TMS that I like to call Tactical Microcosmic Specialization. I apologize for the pomposity of the phrase. But I think that it expresses what I mean, and perhaps it captures some of the pretentiousness that attends all our actions, for we live in small trapped worlds but act as if we lived in total absolute ones. We all do it, for that is what human beings do. We have to. For if we waited to inform ourselves as completely as possible before we acted we would never act at all. It is the Hamlet problem. Conscience – he meant consciousness, not moral guilt as we might take it – doth make cowards of us all, and action is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. But actions once acted cannot be unacted. The decision taken on August 4th 1914 was not well informed but it was absolute. There was no going back.