The road to hell is paved with good inventions

Who’d have thought it? Computer controlled automatic flood relief gates; plastic fishing lines; damming up valleys to flood them and secure water supplies; steam engines – even bicycles; each one of them a technological step forwards. What could possibly go wrong?

Sometimes asking the right question is harder than you’d think because common sense – as we like to describe it – gets in the way, and what ought to be a very simple question gets very difficult. “What direction does time move in?” – we’d mostly agree that it moves forwards, except on Friday afternoons. Our mobiles, wrist watches, TV and radio are perfectly clear that time moves forward in intervals that are measurable down to 10, 20, 1000 decimal places. Sub atomic particle physicists are a bit less dogmatic and would probably answer “it depends – but for all practical purposes it moves forwards in a straight line. ‘That’s progress’, we say, ‘moving: forwards into a better future’.

So let’s accept that for all practical purposes time moves forwards in a straight line; but does that mean that we who own watches and mobiles and watch TV are also moving in a straight line? and if it does – where’s the straight line heading? and this is where the argument gets a bit muddy because the commonsensical answer would be that we’re collectively moving forwards towards a better society and individually moving forwards to a better life. Except we’re not. As my old sociology lecturer Sid Harris would have said – “Where’s the evidence, David?” and, looking around at the present state of the earth I’d say that the evidence for a bigger, brighter and more prosperous future is pretty thin. When science, technology and politics wrapped themselves in evolutionary theory they made a fatal error. History has no telos, to borrow a Greek idea, it’s not bound by an invisible guiding hand, and Progress – in the grand rhetorical sense beloved of politicians, is just another package of merchandised snake oil.

The aha! moment

I was pondering this, here at my laptop, when my son phoned – as he often does on his way home from work, and so we had one of our conversations and he challenged me to set out my problem about time. “There’s a logical flaw” he said, and I’ll paraphrase the rest of his reply. The ancient Greeks knew that the future was always, must always be an unknowable fog of possibilities, and so when we take a walk we have to look forwards to avoid walking under a bus, but when we think about the future we necessarily walk into it backwards. All our knowledge; all our certainties and experiences are behind us in time. The Greeks and Mesopotamians understood this three thousand years ago and the present day Maori people know it now.

To describe a person or a movement as forward looking is assumed to be a compliment but all too often, so-called forward looking leaders combine a wilful march into the unknown with a blithe refusal to attend to the only real data we have – which is all in the past.

There’s a true story that I really love which illustrates this perfectly. An engineering worker lost a finger in an industrial accident and this precipitated an enquiry by a government inspector. When the man was interviewed at work after he had recovered, the inspector asked him to describe exactly what had happened. The man explained that he had put his finger into a hole in the machine and then – to demonstrate precisely what had happened, he stuck another finger through the same hole. Need I continue?

To cherish the hope that another – as yet uninvented slice of technology or science will rescue us from the unexpected consequences of the last lot, is – let’s be kind – rather silly!

Walking backwards into the future

If we were to accept the ancient Greek view of time, what would the implications be for the future of the earth? At the moment it feels as if we’re ploughing on heedlessly into chaos and disaster under the influence of a broken model of so-called progress. But we have thousands, tens of thousands of years of human experience to draw upon. The past isn’t just dry as dust history about people who weren’t as clever as us. It’s a laboratory , a library, a treasury of human insight; of ideas, of technologies, of spiritualities, of memories, of different modes of being fully human in story, drama, music and song.

Here at the Potwell Inn, when the wind blows from the north east we can hear the chimes of a church clock marking the quarters and hours. Time marches on but it doesn’t feel like a straight line. Our lived experience of time is mostly cyclical; of anniversaries and birthdays, lunar months, solstices, seasons and equinoxes. We live in a precious, never to be repeated and wholly unimagined moment that we share with the whole of creation. The meal we ate yesterday evening amounted to nothing more than the vegetables we’d harvested during the day. I baked bread. We worked quietly on the allotment, weeding, planting out, moving nets in drizzly rain. Walking backwards into the future we celebrated each moment.

The Tao is like a well:

Used but never used up.

It is like the eternal void:

filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.

I don’t know who gave birth to it.

It is older than God.

Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu. Chapter 4, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

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