Friday, November 06, 2009


On Raging Controversy and Trivial Pursuit

About this time a decade ago, the Big Fuss of the Day concerned New Year’s Day, January 1st, 2000. Two camps quickly came to the fore: one, ready to “party like its 1999” (to borrow the hook from the song by Prince), claiming that 01/01/00 represented the first day of a new century; the other, apparently not big fans of pop tunes, steadfastly maintaining that the year 2000 was the last year of the Twentieth century, not the first year of the Twenty-First.

Interestingly, no little controversy was stirred up over this notion. Discussions became heated. “December 31, 1999 is the last day of the Twentieth century,” claimed the one camp. “So put on your dancing shoes and party down already!”

“Hold on, Bojangles!” cried the other camp. “You’re getting ahead of yourself. Look at the calendar. We went from 1 BC to 1 AD. There was no Year Zero. If the First Century began with the year 1 AD, then it ended in the year 100 AD. So every century begins with a year ending in 1 and ends with a year ending in 00. This century ain’t over yet!”

“What are you, some sort of killjoy?” screeched the first camp. “The dance halls have already been reserved. The tuxes have been rented. The bands have been hired and are tuning their instruments even now as we speak!”

“Not my problem!” countered the second camp. “We have a New Year’s celebration every year, so we’ll just have a normal celebration like always. Then we can have the big shindig next year, when the Twentieth century actually comes to an end!”

“It’s ending NOW, butt-monkey!”

“No, it’s ending a YEAR from now, pillow-biter!”

“No it’s not!”

“Yes it is! Didn’t you hear what I said about there being no Year Zero?”

“Who cares? 1999 begins with a 1. 2000 begins with a 2. That means a new century, as well as a new millennium!”

“Then why do all the years in the Twentieth century begin with a 19?”

“Distractions! Distractions!”

“Not at all! Why is the Twentieth century called the Twentieth if it’s full of years like 1905 and 1947 and 1981? Because its LAST year begins with a 20. The First century began in the year 1 and ended in the year 100. 100 begins with a 1, so it was the end of the First century. The Second century began in the year 101. And the Twentieth century began in the year 1901.”

“The Twentieth century began in the year 1900!”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because the Twenty-First century begins in the year 2000! Idiot!”

“Horse’s ass!”

And on it went. I remember reading scads of hastily-written, angry letters to the editor of my local newspaper, each camp decrying the other for its ignorance and pig-headedness. One letter claimed that those who claimed that 2000 was but the last year of the Twentieth century were wrong, for no other reason than that they were “arrogant” about it. If I’m lying, I’m dying—the fatal flaw to their argument was their arrogance, not their logic.

For purposes of full discloser, I was one of those who said that the new century would begin in 2001. Now it is certainly true that I seem arrogant. To quote my own brother, who loves me dearly, “You, sir, are a pompous ass!” To which I replied, “Sure, but what’s that got to do with the facts?”

Indeed, what at all?

Once, I even sat down with one of my co-workers and showed him, on paper, how, according to our calendar, the year 2000 was the last year of the Twentieth century. We went over it, step by step, carefully and methodically. I even talked about why Arthur C. Clarke entitled his novel “2001” (because it was the first year of the immanent century), and I even referenced, of all things, a question from a game of Trivial Pursuit I had once played, which asked for the date of the first day of the Twenty-First century (the correct answer, according to Trivial Pursuit: January 1st, 2001). When I finished, I was absolutely certain that my logic was iron-clad, irrefutable. No reasonable person would ever have disagreed with me, and only an insufferable dunderhead would state otherwise.

My co-worker looked at all I had shown him. He closed his eyes, deeply in thought. He crossed his arms, took a deep breath, and sighed. Then, he calmly shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he said.

Why? I asked. Had he disagreed with any point I had made? Was there something wrong with my logic?

No, he said.

Then what?

I don’t know, he said. But something.

I don’t think the matter was ever resolved. Here we are in 2009, and the only thing we can say for certain is that we’re in the Twenty-First century now, and that it began sometime ago, either in 2000 or 2001.

So, what’s my point?

First, I think it demonstrates something about the human condition, namely, that people don’t reason so much as rationalize. As a general rule, we DON’T look at all the facts and then draw our conclusions based upon them; most of the time, we seem to start with what we want to believe and then try to formulate a pathway towards it, using selected facts as supporting cobblestones and ignoring those facts that don’t fit our ready-made pathway.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, since, as St. Augustine pointed out, all knowledge is really a mere assent to belief. We look at some fact or factual assertion and then elect to believe it or not to believe it. Not cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) but opto ergo sum (I choose therefore I am).

Take, for instance, the assertion that dodos are extinct. Is this a fact that we know or a thing we believe? Sure, I can look around, and I don’t see any dodos anywhere; I can read in books that dodos went extinct sometime around the Seventeenth century. I can go to the local zoo and ask the zookeeper where the dodo cages are, and he’ll say “There aren’t any. Dodos are extinct.”

But does that mean that dodos really ARE extinct? Maybe there just aren’t any dodos where I happen to look. After all, I’ve never seen a baby walrus, but I’ll bet they exist. And maybe the books are wrong. It’s happened before. My fifth-grade history book said that Columbus set out across the Atlantic to prove that the world wasn’t flat; my college history book said he was trying to reach India. They can’t both be right. And maybe the local zookeeper is lying to me. These, too, are within the realm of possibility.

So, how do I KNOW that dodos are extinct? Because I don’t just look in a few places. I look in many places. Because I don’t just read in one or two books about the extinction of the dodo, but in many books. And because I can see no reason why the zookeeper would lie to me about the animals he cares for in his zoo. So, these things, taken together, give me a reasonable certainty that the statement “Dodos are extinct” is far more likely grounded in fact than in falsehood.

Still, it’s not a thing that I know, but a thing I believe. Knowledge is never absolute. This is why the Apostle Paul wrote about us seeing “through a glass, and darkly.” It’s reflected in Plato’s famous cave analogy. Heck, for that matter, it underpins Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle!

My second point about the 2000/2001 debacle concerns what it teaches us about another longstanding debacle, namely, the old Evolution/Shmevolution debate: if we can’t even come to agreement about something as simple and easily demonstrable as when the Twentieth century ends and when the Twenty-First century begins, JUST HOW IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY AND GOOD ARE WE EVER GOING TO COME TO AGREEMENT ABOUT SOMETHING AS COMPLEX AND INTANGIBLE AS EVOLUTION?

Obviously, we aren’t.

How do I know? Some time ago, I bought a copy of David Berlinsky’s book “The Devil’s Delusion,” in which he tears apart the bare (and false) assertion from materialists that evolution “has been proved beyond any reasonable doubt.” No surprise here, but I thought the book was brilliant.

After I had finished, I loaned the book to a friend, another co-worker. A really sharp guy, this friend. He has a Master’s Degree in physics. He’s also an agnostic (or atheist, depending upon his mood), who staunchly adheres to fully naturalistic evolutionary theory and who steadfastly claims that Darwinian descent with modification is the best explanation for the complexity of life on earth. Later, when he returned the book, I asked him what he thought about it.

I couldn’t find much to agree with, he said.

Why? I asked. Something wrong with Berlinsky’s logic?

Naw, he said.

Then what?

He’s too arrogant.

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