How Much Is That Dogma In The Window? Or, Altruism & Why Being Right Might Not Be As Important As You Think.

In one of these post/rants/whatever they are, ramblings, mainly – I wrote about how, when I used to teach Biology, I’d ask kids whether they believed in evolution or creationism and how practically every one of the thousands of kids I’ve been in classrooms with said that they believed in evolution but, when questioned about it, they couldn’t tell you why they believed that.  Some people might think that’s some sort of progress in terms of human thinking, but I don’t believe it is, personally.  Just exchanging one explanation for how we got here for another one without bothering to look into it isn’t progress, is it?   It’s the process of thinking about things that counts.

What I’m getting at is that I don’t even know if being right is that important anymore.

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See?  You can even buy a t shirt to advertise it.  I couldn’t find one that reads, “I don’t know if I’m right or not.  I’m still thinking about it.”  What does that tell you?

This post started off being about whether being right is important or not.  As is often the case with me, I often don’t really know what I think about something until I’ve written about it and the conclusions I reached relate to, perhaps the process of thinking about things might not matter either.

Which is the point at which we get to things being a bit meta.  Because I wouldn’t have reached the idea that thinking about things wasn’t important, had I not thought about them.

Up myself?  You don’t know the half of it.

At the behest of the current Mrs Middlerabbit, we watch television programmes together.  Some of them I enjoy a lot and some of them I don’t.  Big of me, isn’t it?  You know, doing something you don’t like to make somebody else happy.  No, not really.  We don’t both stick with things for the same amount of time as the other.  Generally though, I’m the one who gets sick of things first.

I get sick of things when, as far as I’m concerned, the programme has run out of things to say and starts repeating itself.  I appreciate the comfort that watching entertainment that  has reached the stage of eating itself but it’s not for me.  Not often anyway.

A lot of these thing are American comedy series.  Things that might be described as basic.  I’m not inherently against basic things, not conceptually anyway.  Nor am I particularly against things that are enjoyed by a wide audience.  My favourite band is The Beatles and you don’t get much more universally popular than that, do you?  Mind you, I don’t consider the music of The Beatles to be basic either so maybe I’m kidding myself.  What confuses me about the enduring popularity of The Beatles is why so many people like them when so much of what they created was so complicated, if that’s the opposite of basic.  Maybe it’s not.  I don’t know and don’t care enough to find out.  Who would you ask?  The internet?  I’m not asking the internet something like that.  Are there people who’d describe what they like as basic?  Maybe there are.  Again, I don’t know.

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Top 5 spots all occupied by Beatles records.  Objective evidence that they are quantifiably the best band ever.  Except it’s not, is it?

With The Beatles thing, part of me suspects that a lot of people just want to say the right thing.  You know, nobody wants to have the things they love to be ridiculed – not really – and I do wonder whether a load of people who say that they love The Beatles don’t really.  Or, when I’m feeling particularly up myself – which happens more frequently than I’d like to admit – I wonder if these people genuinely believe that they like The Beatles but, really, they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about and they’d be equally happy with, well, anything really.  Maybe it’s the same thing as just wanting to be right about things – which I also think I understand.

I’m off work with a fucked up back at the minute and that means that I’ve had access to the television to a far greater extent than I usually do.  The current Mrs Middlerabbit usually commandeers the television and, as I’ve said, sometimes we watch things together but even if it’s something that I enjoy, I can only cope with it for limited periods of time before I want to throw something at the screen.  So I normally leave her to it and go and read in the back room or something.  My records are in there too.  Here, actually.  I’m currently sitting on the settee with Devendra Banhart on the record player.  It’s alright.

Anyway, one of the programmes she’s suggested we watch is the new Ricky Gervais thing: After Life.

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After Life poster – TL:DR – Even if Ricky Gervais is an idiot who doesn’t realise it, it doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything.

When she was living and working in Surrey, we’d watch The 11 O’ Clock Show, which was sort of alright some of the time.  A bit later, but not much, when I shared a flat with The Drummer, we watched the first series of The Office and that was a big thing.  One of the last things I remember that a lot of people watched and talked about at work.  Water cooler television, or whatever it was called in the olden days when television wasn’t on demand.  I thought it was good, The Office.

Second series too.  I couldn’t be arsed with the Christmas specials because eI was sick of it by then.  Same thing with extras, really.  I watched a couple of them but by that point I thought I’d pretty much heard what Gervais had to say about things.  He wasn’t going to surprise me.  I thought there was a sort of implied level of self-awareness about him.  You know, like Steve Coogan and Alan Partridge, I thought there was a level of acceptance that there was quite a lot of David Brent in Ricky Gervais and he was laughing at himself, without too much self-loathing.

I didn’t really keep up with him after that.  I thought it was alright, but I gathered it was going to be just variations on a theme after that.  Mrs Middlerabbit watched them, but I was in the back room, navel gazing or something equally banal.  I’m not saying I was or am superior, I hasten to add.

Anyway, After Life.  She suggested it and, as I was enjoying a couple of the things we’d been watching, I thought we must be on a roll or something and said, “Yeah, alright.

I go on this forum on the internet – I read a lot more than I comment – and, being a bit of a high-falutin’ comedy forum, I suppose, the general consensus is that Ricky Gervais is a load of shit.  I wasn’t on board with that really as he’d done The Office, even if that was the only decent thing he ever did, it’s one more decent thing than most people – including me – ever manage.  I suppose I’m the sort of person who enjoys novelty value more than he enjoys sticking to what he likes, again, I don’t think that’s a better perspective, just one I’ve saddled myself with and can’t shake off.   Anyway,  most of them hate him because they’re all comedy people who analyse comedy and look for technical expertise or something.

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Technical expert at work: not necessarily as entertaining as it might be.

Like I’ve said before, outside of things like medicine and construction industries, technical expertise isn’t something that I find particularly enjoyable.  The most technically proficient musicians, for instance.  Whoever they are, I don’t really give a shit about.  I can admire it, but in a detached sort of way.  Like a proficient plumber.  You know, I might be impressed but not especially moved a lot of the time.  And I’m looking to be moved, one way or another.  So my viewpoint is that, no, maybe he’s not especially technically brilliant, but if what he says moves me in some way, then fair dos, even if the experts might label me as a bit basic for it.

So, I didn’t really look into it – After Life – because I’d rather go relatively blindly into things to mollify my preference for novelty over familiarity.

It’s about this chap whose wife’s died and he’s on a bummer: can’t see the point in anything.  He decides, fuck it, if someone gets on his tits, he’s going to let them have it because he’s past caring what anybody thinks.  So, he’s pretty rude and dismissive of these other characters and the only thing that’s stopping him killing himself is his dog.  The dog, lacking opposable thumbs, can’t open tins of dog food so she (the dog) would die if Gervais’s character killed himself.

Periodically, this bloke watches videos that his deceased wife made, telling him how lovely he is and how he shouldn’t let himself give up on life and how he should make a point of doing nice things and all that.  Sometimes he watches videos he made of the pair of them too.  Those videos show that he was one of those people who enjoyed practical jokes.  I’ve not watched the whole thing as I write this, but so far, he’s woken her up with a klaxon, made her jump while she was painting a landscape and woken her up by chucking water on her.  And her response is to cal him a twat, but only jokingly because she’s into practical jokes too, by the looks of things.

As time goes on, he gets progressively more irritated by everybody around him and he tells them what dicks they are.

And that’s pretty much what we’re up to.  About halfway through, I suppose.

The current Mrs Middlerabbit has commented that it’s not especially funny, it’s more depressing.  I commented that I found it particularly depressing for several reasons.

  1. Same as her, probably, it’s a depressing situation without too many laughs so far.
  2. Gervais’s character is depressed because his wife’s dead and, prior to that, he wasn’t.  My wife’s not dead and, somewhat tragically, I noted, not happily, that I feel like his character does now.
  3. At this point, I had a look on that forum and they all hated it, naturally.  But among the reasons they all hated it was because Gervais appears to be doing the misanthropic thing and being horrible about fat people, gingers, snotty kids and that and what a cunt he is.  And yet, I’d found myself identifying with the character.

Sometimes I do identify with fictional characters.  I gather you’re supposed to.

Diversion – Fleabag and identifying with people.

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Fleabag: or, how I learned to identify with upper middle class women through the medium of bleak humour.

One of the other programmes we watch together is Fleabag, written by Phoebe Waller-Gates.   In some ways, it’s quite similar to After Life, in that it’s quite bleak, quite a lot of the time, but I quite like bleak.

I watched the first series and really enjoyed that.  I thought Waller-Gates had some really funny lines and she’s very good in it too.  As I tend to, I had a look on the internet about it to see what people were saying about it and I found – of those people who give a shit at all – tended to broadly fall into two camps.  Those who liked it, obviously and those who didn’t, equally obviously.  I already knew what I liked about it, so I was more interested in what it was about Fleabag that people didn’t like and what they tended to say about it was that it was all much too (upper) middle class for their liking and they couldn’t identify with that.

Fleabag is, in a lot of ways, a bit of a twat.  At least.  But at least she’s a funny twat, which goes a long way in my book.  She’s a bit pathetic in a lot of ways, genuinely and pejoratively.  Her dad obviously doesn’t really give much of a shit about her, or if he does, he can’t do anything about it.  He can’t talk to her anyway, even if he does give a shit.  Fleabag’s lost and lonely and her way – in the first series – of dealing with that is to shag about and not really have too much of an idea of what she’s pissing about at.  She doesn’t do herself too many favours.  And I identified with that.  Not that part about her dad, because my dad’s not like that, fortunately for me.  But the rest of it, yeah.  Too fucking right.

Bearing in mind I’m not female or upper middle class, I realised that that perspective didn’t tally with the naysayers on the internet about why they didn’t like it.  You know, it was aimed at upper middle class women and if you’re both of those things, yeah, knock yourself out.  If not, why the hell would you put yourself through it?

And I didn’t really get that.

My parents both came from very working class backgrounds – especially my mother – and the programmes I remember them particularly enjoying on television when I lived with them were things like EM Forster adaptations.  I liked them too, even though I had no experience of Edwardian upper class life either.

When I was younger than that, like pretty much everybody else I knew, I was into Star Wars.  The point being, I don’t live in a galaxy far, far away.

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Star Wars: or, how I learned to identify with robots from a long time ago in a place a long way away.  Through the medium of heroism, altruism and exciting looking swords made out of laser beams.

And that’s my point about Fleabag and the people who slag it off for being some sort of even more upper middle class version of Miranda (which I wasn’t taken by and the breaking the fourth wall thing seems just a way of tarring one thing with another’s brush).  I don’t see why you’re only supposed to enjoy things that are the same as you.  The setting of a piece of fictional entertainment doesn’t determine how good it is or not, does it?  Well, apparently it does for some people, but that’s up to them, isn’t it?  Beats me.

End of Diversion.

I identified with Gervais’s character in After Life which I found a lot more disturbing than similarly identifying with Fleabag, even though they’re both arseholes in lots of ways.

The people on the comedy forum don’t like Fleabag either, although they don’t hold the same level of disdain for Waller-Bridges as they do for Gervais.

Having not paid much attention to Gervais, I noted that he’d done some stand up comedy which, naturally, the comedy forum people hated.  Because it wasn’t technically great and because he nicked jokes of other comedians or appropriated playground jokes from the 1970s in routines in which he pretended that the things that happened in those jokes had happened to him.

The other day, in alone, I was flicking through Netflix and noted that there was a Ricky Gervais stand up film on, so I thought I’d give it a go.  It’s called Humanity.  Apparently he’s done one about, and called, Animals so maybe there’s a theme in them.  Again, I wouldn’t know really.

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Ricky (Dean) Gervais: evidently getting something from standup comedy that I don’t.  And not just his.

Anyway, it was an hour and a bit long and I thought it was a bit crappy, really.   The audience lapped it up though.  They fucking loved it and, to be frank, the audience worried me more than he did.  Even though he came back on and gave the absolute worst encore I’ve ever witnessed.  I’m not going to tell you about it because I’m boring enough without adding the festering shite he apparently considered worthy of topping off an evening with.  You need to hear it because it fucking stank.  And that’s coming from me.  Yeah.

I wondered if the problem might be that I don’t really like stand up comedy all that much.  I’ve seen, well, I wouldn’t say a lot of stand up comedians, but a fair few and the things they have in common is that the closest thing to a reaction that they provoke in me is – at best – a sort of mild smirk of appreciation.

Obviously, some of the comedy forum people have watched a lot more of that sort of thing than I have and they compared Gervais unfavourably to stand up comedians who they thought were either naturals at it, or who had worked on it and had honed their technique, I suppose, to a degree that it was cleverly done.  Callbacks and things like that.  Which I can dig.  I enjoy a callback, especially if it’s unexpected but even when that happens, like watching the plumber I mentioned above – I can admire it, but it doesn’t tend to move me very much.

Diversion – The Stand Up’s Stand Up.

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Stewart Lee: (Insert name)’s let himself go.

Obviously it’s a matter of preference, but the stand up comedian who was getting cited – a lot – by the comedy forum people was Stewart Lee.  I like Stewart Lee a lot.  In fact, he’s the only stand up comedian I’ve been to see live in the last few years.  I used to go and see him when he’d do his thing at Hull Truck Theatre, before it was rebuilt – in a tiny theatre, no more than a couple of hundred seats.  A couple of times I sat on the front row and I really enjoyed it, but I also felt a little bit bad about sitting on the front row because, as I’ve said, I’m not one of those people who laughs their head off.  I enjoyed it a lot.  I thought he was funny and clever and I admired the way he did it and all that, but I’m not sure I ever actually made any sounds that indicated that I did and I felt mild concern that he’d be standing on the stage, worrying that it was going badly because at least one of the people there just wasn’t laughing.  And that’s probably the concept of stand up comedy, isn’t it?  Making people laugh.

I like to think that I enjoy humour but I’m not a big laugher.

I also consider myself to be someone who enjoys music and, as I’ve written on here, if you’re playing in a band and people aren’t dancing basically, you’ve failed.  That’s what it feels like anyway.

End of Diversion.

So, I didn’t laugh a lot at Humanity, the Ricky Gervais stand up.  I had that in common with the comedy forum people.  But, as I didn’t really laugh at any stand up comedy, even the stand up’s stand up, Stewart Lee, maybe that didn’t say much.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t laugh out loud at it though.  I didn’t find a lot to admire either.  At least with Stewart Lee, I recognised the skill in his routines.  With Gervais, I didn’t see any skill either.

What I did see was a person who – quite explicitly at one point – wanted to be right above everything else.  Like the kids who laugh at people who believe in creationism because they know better, even though they don’t know anything at all about evolution.  Like people who say The Beatles were the best band because they think that’s what they ought to say.

I have a little bit of self-awareness – sometimes – and I’ve written about how, when I was a kid, I thought that the concept of buying records was to buy whatever record was going to be at number one because then you’d be able to say you were right about what was the best record.

I’ve also said – earlier in this piece – how I’m coming round to the idea that being right about something might not be as important as something else, and by something else, I mean, the thought processes you used to get where you are now.

Like maths.  You know, in maths exams, you get marks for writing down your method even if you get the answer wrong in the end.  Which used to irritate me as a kid.  I couldn’t be arsed with showing my working because when teachers marked your book, they’d only put a cross or a tick next to your answer, so it just seemed like a waste of time, writing down your working out.

I used to think that maths had a definite practical use – and it does.  But now I’m beginning to think that it has a practical use that has nothing at all to do with maths and that’s the showing of your working which I’m rapidly coming round – even if I’m going around the houses a bit as I’m writing about it – to as being, possibly, the important thing.

Ricky Gervais explicitly states, “…The world is getting worse. And I blame the beginning of its demise on social media. Because Twitter and Facebook, that’s where this ridiculous notion bred, and became stable, that it was more important to be popular than right. Everything was “like me”, “agree with me”. It falls into two tribes. “I don’t agree with them, so I block them.” And now, in this post-truth era, people don’t care about the argument, they say, “Who’s saying the argument? No, they’re not on our side.” It’s ludicrous, okay? And it also bred this ridiculous notion we’ve always had. My opinion is worth as much as yours. Now, it’s my opinion is worth as much as your fact, which is nonsense...”

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Ricky Gervais’s Twitter Flounce (2010): since retracted.  Apparently.

And there are a lot of things in that extract that I agree with.  Being popular shouldn’t be more popular than being right, should it?

What he’s getting at, in a roundabout sort of way, is the logical fallacy of the Argument From Authority.  Sort of.  I’ve mentioned it myself a few times, the idea that you shouldn’t just take somebody’s word for something because they’ve said they’re an expert  on something.  The logical fallacy of the Argument From Authority tells us that, if this person is an expert, they ought to be able to put it in such a way that a non-expert should understand it and reach the same conclusion – because it’s logical.

Diversion – Flat Earthers.

After I’d watched Humanity, I watched a documentary called Beyond The Curve, also on Netflix.  I thought it was going to present some logical arguments about why some people believe that the Earth is flat.

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Flat Earther, Patricia Steere: For the briefest of moments she sounded like she was going to have an epiphany about how the same tenuous and spurious connections she’d made about ‘science’ were being made by rival Flat Earth adherents about her, but the moment soon passed.  Nice set of albums by The Smiths behind her, mind.

I don’t believe that the Earth is flat.

The reason I believe that the Earth is spherical – more or less – and not flat is for exactly the same reason that people have almost never believed that the Earth is flat.  On the basis that if you walk a few hundred yards in any direction, new things appear on the horizon.

This documentary didn’t, as it turned out, present any arguments about why the Earth is flat – funnily enough.  What it did present were some people who make YouTube videos about why they believe that is the case.

The gist of most of the flat-earthers’ reasoning behind their beliefs was pretty similar, even if a lot of them have fallen out with each other for one reason or another.  The basic premise seemed to be this: we, the ordinary people of the Earth, flat or otherwise, get told all sorts of lies by the less ordinary people who are in power.  And if they’ve lied to us about things like, I don’t know, whether there were Weapons Of Mass Destruction in Iraq in the 1990s, or if £350 million pounds a week would be spent on the NHS if Britain voted to leave the European Union, then what else have they been lying to us about?

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George Orwell on political lying.  Not news, but not fake news either.

I can see where they’re coming from.  If there’s a person who lives down your street who’s been caught burgling houses on a number of occasions and then your house gets burgled, who’s the first person you’re going to be looking at?  I can dig that.

The scientific community were interviewed on this programme quite a lot and their perspective – those who were shown, at least – was, I thought, quite surprising.

They didn’t have any truck with the idea that the Earth was flat –  that wasn’t surprising, given the evidence that’s available for everybody who lives on Earth.  It was how sympathetic they were to the people who believed that it was flat.  They held themselves responsible.  They weren’t saying, “Look at these fucking idiots.  Durr!

The fundamental problem that Flat Earthers have is twofold.

  1. They don’t trust science.
  2. They don’t know what science is.

Science, as the scientists pointed out, isn’t dogma.  Science is a method for testing ideas.  That’s it.

One of the Flat Earth people introduced himself as being, I can’t remember exactly what he said he did for a living, but it wasn’t working in McDonalds.  It wasn’t stacking shelves in Walmart or something.  He didn’t live in his mother’s basement.  He said he worked for the police, possibly in a lab or something which, as the documentary unfolded, sounded decreasingly plausible, but maybe, you know?  Who knows?

He was involved in this experiment with a super expensive gyroscope ($20,000).  Without getting too technical about it, this gyroscope would be able to measure the movement of The Earth.  If, as scientists claim, the Earth is a spheroid that rotates in space, then this gyroscope would show it.

And it did.  Funnily enough.

Anyway, he kept trying different things with this gyroscope, encasing it in different materials, because he didn’t want it to show that the Earth was rotating in space, he wanted it to show that it wasn’t.

At a Flat Earth conference that some of the YouTube people had put together, he was talking to some other Flat Earth people and he told them what the experiments with the gyroscope had showed and how he was going to keep his mouth shut about it because the results looked bad for Flat Earthers and he was going to keep trying different things until he found some proof that the Earth wasn’t spinning through space and then, when he had, that’d be what he told the (flat) World about.

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Flat Earth ‘logic’: now I see something, but not necessarily that.

The Flat Earthers often mentioned that science was just this dogma that was spouted.  To keep the population in the dark, so to speak.  They didn’t know who was spouting it, or why it might be advantageous to pretend that we were living on a globe and not a big, flat circle, but they were pretty sure it was a lie because they’d been lied to about other things.

In short, they hated science because it was dogma, without being able to recognise that, actually, the ones spouting dogma were the flat Earthers because they only wanted to hear what they wanted to hear.  Any evidence that went against the idea that the Earth is flat – even evidence that they had gathered themselves – they didn’t want that.

They had an idea and if the evidence didn’t support their idea, then instead of modifying their hypothesis – what science does – they ignored it, or they came up with reasons why the evidence was being manipulated by whoever it is who wants us to believe that the Earth’s spherical.  For whatever reason that might be.

And yet the scientific community blamed themselves.  They said, these people just don’t understand what science is or how you use it, or what it’s for.  Which I thought was quite admirable.  It certainly demonstrates a resilience to wilful ignorance and stupidity that I struggle to get anywhere near.

The Flat Earth people rejected what they thought was dogma – even though it’s not – and replaced it with something that actually is dogma.

The filmmakers didn’t really explicitly make any comments about anything that anybody said, all they had to do was give some people, who don’t have much in the way of brains, enough rope.  And that’s what they showed.

I looked it up on IMDB after I’d watched it and one of the reviews of it had this notice above it – Warning: Spoilers – meaning you had to click on it to read it.  And the review was a one liner and it said this: “Stupid people don’t realise that they’re stupid.”

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Only 15 out of 55 people found this review helpful.  The other 40 already knew that.  Possibly.

I already knew that but I thought – that’s fantastic.  What a spoiler.

End of Diversion.

I expect – I don’t know – that Ricky Gervais isn’t a Flat-Earther.  Furthermore, I expect that Ricky Gervais would be less sympathetic than the scientists when it comes to describing the failings relating to these people.  Again, I don’t know, but I suspect he’d say they were fucking idiots.  And they are, they are fucking idiots.

My point is that people who just believe that the Earth is flat because somebody told them that are no worse than people who believe that the Earth is spherical just because somebody told them that.  The only difference is that one set are right and the other aren’t.  The point is, neither group can show anybody their working out because neither of them have worked anything out.

The difference, apart from one group being right and the other being wrong, is that of the people in the group who are right, some are right for the wrong reasons.

And that’s my issue with Ricky Gervais and, if I’m being honest, his audience – who were lapping it up.

And it is my issue.  Not theirs.  Maybe they’ve all spent time and effort looking into the things that he was talking about – the facts – the hypotheses that have been tested and reformulated and retested and on and on and on.

But, let’s face it, they haven’t, have they?  They’re doing exactly what the Flat Earthers are doing.  They’re just dropping one set of ideas that they don’t have the first idea about for another set of ideas that they know an equal amount about, which is to say nothing and the reasons they’re accepting that is because they want to be right.

I say they, implying every last one of the whistling, whooping crowd who couldn’t wait to publicly demonstrate their agreement with somebody because of who he is.  Even though what he was saying was that you shouldn’t accept someone’s perspective just because of who they are, while simultaneously expecting a crowd of people who’d paid money to listen to him – who presumably paid because they liked previous things that he’d said and done – to do just that, only agree with him and not somebody else who he thought was a dick.

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Sycophantic audience: not actually Ricky Gervais’s, but it might as well be.

Ricky Gervais, a philosophy graduate, claims to have only read one book: The Catcher In The Rye, when he was 28.  Assuming he’s telling the truth, which you’d hope he wasn’t, what does that tell us?  He’s too busy to be reading Darwin because he’s been spending his life on the Galapagos Islands, looking into the variety of beaks of finches who live there?  Maybe he has, but I doubt it.

The bottom line is this: Ricky Gervais is no better than anybody who just believes one dogma over another because they want to be right.

I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m right but, that’s the point, isn’t it?  Or rather, it’s not the point.

It doesn’t even matter whether I’m right or not.  What matters is that I’ve had a think about it.

Well, that’s part of what matters.  Unless it’s not…

Tonight, Mrs Middlerabbit and I watched a couple more episodes of After Life and even though I can see exactly where the comedy forum people are coming from as to why they fucking hate it – it was a pretty mawkish; he tells where he should be showing; it was a bit like a shit sort Falling Down in places; he punches down instead upwards, et cetera, et cetera – it doesn’t mean to say that every last thing that he had to say about being a miserable cunt – like I am most of the time – was a load of shit.

Even though the solution to anhedonia – his character’s fundamental issue which, let’s face it, is something I certainly can get on board with – wasn’t anything (flat) Earth shattering in its philosophy and certainly not in its execution, I think he was right about it.

And, without spoiling it too much, it’s about the paradox of altruism.

It crops up in Psychology quite a lot: altruism. doing something for someone else and getting nothing for it in return.  

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The Paradox of Altruism: (Oxy)Moronic.  But only if you’re as stupid as I am.

In terms of evolutionary psychology, there is no such thing as altruism because it doesn’t make sense.  Putting yourself at risk for other people – especially to whom you’re not related – shouldn’t be selected.

Let’s have an example.

If you help an old, blind person across the road then what you’re doing is increasing the risk that you, yourself will come to harm because you’re slowing yourself down in a dangerous environment.

If there is some biological mechanism that makes some people altruistic, then the harm they put themselves in will, eventually, lead to their deaths and, therefore the biological mechanism being wiped out and not passed along to the children they won’t have on account of them being killed before they had any.

And yet, people do put themselves in danger for the benefit of other people and it persists – that’s the evidence.

Not everybody, certainly not all the time.

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Indicating when driving: an altruistic act.  You don’t see it very often, do you?  I find it enormously annoying when drivers don’t bother indicating – far more than I ought to because what I’m expecting is altruism.  The problem I have with it is that it involves, literally, lifting a finger for someone else.  You couldn’t do much less, could you?  And yet, how often do drivers indicate in comparison with how often they should?  Why don’t people indicate?  A few possible reasons.  1. They don’t know what they’re doing: the most likely one. 2. They don’t see why they should.  Who’s law suggests that you should never attribute to malice that which could be as easy attributed to stupidity?  I can’t remember, but that’s one dogma I tend to go along with.  Because the alternative drives me crackers.  Fucking drivers.  Use your fucking indicators and if you don’t know how to, get the fucking bus.

So, how do evolutionary psychologists explain this, apparently, paradoxical evidence?

The theory is this: altruism means doing something for someone else and getting nothing for it in return but we do get something in return.

What we get in return is a warm feeling.

Not much, you might think, for putting your life in danger but it is.  It must be, or we wouldn’t do it.  That’s how evolutionary psychology works – if something exists, if something’s been selected, it must be evolutionarily advantageous, or it would have died out.

In short, the warm glow of satisfaction we get when we do something for someone else is essential for our survival.  It’s not an optional extra.  It’s not a little bonus.

When I first learned about the paradox of altruism, I was enormously disappointed.  I interpreted it as meaning that nobody did anything for anybody else without getting a bit of something back for themselves.   And I hated it.  I hated the idea that, whatever you did, however nice you were to somebody else, some shithouse psychologist could wag their finger at you, give you that look – I know what you’re doing – and I’d think, yeah.  What’s the fucking point?   Anything I supposedly do for anyone else isn’t for them really.  It’s for me.  Me, me, me.

And, fool that I am – clever twat – I thought, well fuck that then.  If I can’t do something for someone without it really being for me, why bother?  Why not just cut the middle man out and just do things for myself or those to whom I’m most closely related?

And that’s what sort of half-arsed thinking I’m inclined to slip into from time to time.  Which is why I need reminding – kicking up the arse – to have a think about things so my head doesn’t disappear right back up my arse.

Because you have to be alive – and reasonably happy – in order to get out of bed in the morning in order to do something nice for someone else.  And it just self-perpetuates, doesn’t it?

And, if even someone like Ricky Gervais – perhaps the physical embodiment of a stupid person who doesn’t realise that he’s stupid (and that’s how you do unexpected callbacks, by the way) – knows that, and it takes someone like him to remind me of something that I already knew but had forgotten about, or had interpreted in a particularly stupid way, then maybe being stupid isn’t necessarily a permanent state of mind, merely a recurring one.

And – maybe – being right isn’t something that’s just the preserve of the intelligent – or spasmodically intelligent.

Even if somebody like Ricky Gervais doesn’t really have any idea about the paradox of altruism and hasn’t thought about it himself very much, but in churning out some mawkishly pithy truism to the likes of me has a positive effect on my mental health then maybe thinking about the reasons and the whys and wherefores doesn’t matter either.

Sometimes.

 

 

 

 

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