The day Big Ben stopped, I was riding a bus down Whitehall. It was five minutes past five and we were all going home after work. In the dense, slow-moving traffic, Big Ben grew and grew in the front windows of the bus for all to see. Since everyone on the bus had a train to catch, all eyes were on it. The minute hand reached five past five – and stayed there. A microphone had been fixed under the great bell in preparation for the Royal Jubilee celebrations, and its trailing lead had snagged the pendulum – but of course we weren’t to know that.
In the Year of Grace 1972, passengers on a London bus did not engage in casual conversation with strangers. But soon we were all chattering as if we’d known each other all our lives. The bus divided evenly into two schools of thought:
Affirmers: It’s seven minutes past five. Big Ben has stopped!
Deniers: Big Ben cannot stop. Not even Hitler’s bombs managed to stop it. Your watch is fast.
Now as the minutes went by and Big Ben’s minute hand stayed put, you might have thought that the Deniers would convert in a body to the Affirmers. But that did not happen. The two schools of thought contended like a couple of Mao’s Hundred Blooming Flowers, and voices were raised. One by one the Deniers fell silent, but not all at once. Ten minutes into the event, with Big Ben’s minute hand still firmly lodged at five past five, two or three Deniers were still expounding the truth of their religion. They didn’t convert so much as sink into quiet grumbling and finally silence.
That incident was an epiphany to me. It exposed the clockwork of the Human Mind. Like Big Ben itself, the Mind can even get it wrong over the time-of-day. How then are we going to get it right over unprecedented threats like Covid-19 and Climate Change? Or have any hope of uniting to tackle the threat of war, famine and pestilence which, left unchecked, threaten to destroy our families, our democratic societies, our very civilisation, maybe even our human species?
Man is not a rational creature – which properly means a calculating one (from Latin: ratio: calculation). Man is an authoritarian one. Of all the facts, or rather the beliefs, in our minds (most people don’t know the difference), the vast majority are what other people have simply put there: people having authority in our eyes. Hence we are authoritarians – even the most rebellious of us. Few of us deliberately go about validating any of those facts – and when we do we merely gather smidgeons of evidence to support our beliefs, denying evidence that challenges them. Of course, life is too short to check-up on everything we hold to be the case. But it seems that to do the job effectively we need to be trained by experts, and then only in some restricted field in which we hope to become experts ourselves.
If we were truly rational creatures, we would not behave like that. Like Descartes, we would systematically doubt every proposition presented to us, accepting only those we had subjected to independent scrutiny, and found them to be evidence-based.
But in the habitat created by human society, Darwin’s notion of “survival of the fittest” has nothing to do with objective truth and everything to do with keeping up with those around us. There’s little survival value in going your own sweet way. It takes rare courage to do that – the courage of a pioneer.
You can always tell the pioneers, they say. They’re the ones lying face down in the mud with arrows in their backs.