George Walford: The Edges of Reality

A problem facing systematic ideology (our opponents of the [anarcho-] Socialist Party tend to be less aware that it is a problem facing them too) is whether it is possible to demonstrate the existence of a world “out there.” If it can be shown that there is, as there seems to be, a world independent of us and by which our behaviour is restricted, then the scope of ideology, the extent to which it may influence our behaviour, is correspondingly limited.

One indication of the reality of such an independent world would be provided if the objects of which it appears to be composed were found to have rigid limits which stood up to examination. Certainly the objects we handle in daily life do appear to have such limits; one can see where the table ends and the typewriter begins. But the investigations of the physical scientists tend to indicate that these limits are an illusion produced by the grossness of our senses; when the edges of a material object are examined minutely enough they are found to be not hard and sharp at all, but vague and indefinite, affected by the presence of an observer, even to be not fully material at all but “a fog of probability.”

When immaterial objects are in question the difficulty of specifying their limits is increased. Economic classes, for example, are found on close examination not to be substantial entities, exerting a determining influence on political belief, that they seem to be in Marxism. They turn out to be, rather, creatures of theory; they grow and fade, become more or less significant, according to the question being asked.

The idea of a world “out there” carries consequences; it tends to produce, for example, the belief that a journalist ought to report the facts. This is what Claud Cockburn, a journalist of wide experience, has to say about that one:

To hear people talking about the facts you would think that they lay about like pieces of gold ore in the Yukon days waiting to be picked up – by strenuous prospectors whose subsequent problem was only to get them to market.

Such a view is evidently and dangerously naive. There are no such facts. Or if there are, they are meaningless and entirely ineffective; they might, in fact, just as well not be lying about at all until the prospector – the journalist – puts them into relation with other facts: presents them, in other words. Then they become as much a part of a pattern created by him as if he were writing a novel. – I, Claud: The Autobiography of Claud Cockburn, Penguin Books 1967

The facts of the journals and the books, and the physical world confronting us, may be less solid and certain than they appear, but there is one thing of which we seem to have direct, immediate, unquestionable, absolute knowledge. We are human beings and we know, it would seem, of our own direct experience, without any need for reference to philosophers, scientists, ideologists or other puzzle-producers, what a human being is. Yet even the distinction between human beings and the animals, when the attempt is made to specify it, turns out to be less sharp than at first appears. Readers of science fiction will know the fun Isaac Asimov and others have had with trying to define a human being precisely enough for a robot to recognise one, but that may be dismissed as fantasy; let us stay with the serious scholars. A History of Technology, by Charles Singer, E. J. Holmyard and others, was published by the Oxford University Press in 1954 in five volumes (and damned big, thick, square volumes they are too). It starts by asking whether technology provides the ground for a definition of humanity. The obvious reference is to man as a tool-using animal, but this book is more sophisticated than that; it starts with Benjamin Franklin’s definition: “a tool-making animal.” It mentions otter using stones to crack open shell-fish, birds using thorns to poke insects out of bark, even a wasp which uses a stone to ram down the covering of sand over its eggs. Animals (in the very broad sense of that term) which use tools but do not make them; all in order. But then it comes to the greater spotted woodpecker, which:

regularly constructs a vice by pecking a cleft in a tree-trunk and pushing pine-cones into it, to hold them firm while pulling out the seeds (pp 4, emphasis added).

And on pp 15, there is an illustration captioned “Chimpanzee making a tool,” while:

There were no recognizable tools with the remains of the oldest known fossil man, the species “Pithecanthropus robustus” found in lake-clays at Sangiran in Java; or with the later “P. erectus” from river gravel at Trinil, Java; or with the species of “Homo” in river sands at Mauer near Heidelberg. (pp 23)

So Franklin’s definition provides no sharp delimitation. Two other approaches to the problem are mentioned only to be dismissed:

Differentiation between anthropoid apes on the one hand and fully evolved man on the other is readily made on the basis of comparative anatomy, but the question of how to distinguish ‘men’ from their immediate forerunners, which would have been smaller-brained and rather ape-like, is still open to discussion. (pp 10)

Oral tradition, in effect a new kind of inheritance, is sometimes regarded as more distinctive of man than tool-making. (pp 18, emphasis added)

When the scholars are unable to provide a precise definition of man, what chance is there of any of us being able to demonstrate that the objects around us are as “hard-edged,” as independent of ourselves and our thinking, as they appear to be?

from Ideological Commentary 16, January 1985.