Reductionist Persuits

“Gentlefolks in general have a very awkward rock ahead in life – the rock ahead of their own idleness. Their lives being, for the most part, passed in looking about them for something to do, it is curious to see – especially when their tastes are of what is called the intellectual sort – how often they drift blindfold into some nasty pursuit. Nine times out of ten they take to torturing something, or to spoiling something – and they firmly believe they are improving their minds, when the plain truth is, they are only making a mess in the house. I have seen them (ladies, I am sorry to say, as well as gentlemen) go out, day after day, for example with empty pill-boxes, and catch newts, and beetles, and spiders, and frogs, and come home and stick pins through the miserable wretches, or cut them up, without a pang of remorse, into little pieces. You see my young master, or my young mistress, poring over one of their spiders’ insides witha magnifying-glass; or you meet oneof their frogs walking downstairs without his head – and when you wonder what this cruel nastiness means, you are told that it means a taste in my young master or my young mistress for natural history. Sometimes, again, you see them occupied for hours together in spoiling a pretty flower with pointed instruments, out of a stupid curiosity to know what the flower is made of. Is its colour any prettier, or its scent any sweeter, when you do know? But there! the poor souls must get through the time, you see – they must get through the time. You dabbled in nasty mud, and made pies, when you were a child; and you dabble in nasty science, and dissect spiders, and spoil flowers, when you grow up. In the one case and in the other, the secret of it is, that you have got nothing to think of in your poor empty head, and nothing to do with your poor idle hands. And so it ends in your spoiling canvas with paints, and making a smell in the house; or in keeping tadpoles in a glass box full of dirty water, and turning everybody’s stomach in the house – or in chipping of bits of stone here, there, and everywhere, and dropping grit into all the victuals in the house; or in staining your fingers in the pursuit of photography, and doing justice without mercy on everybody’s face in the house. It often falls heavy enough, no doubt, on people who are really obliged to get their living, to be forced to work for the clothes that cover them, the roof that shelters them, and the food that keeps them going. But compare the hardest day’s work you ever did with the idleness that splits flowers and pokes its way into spiders’ stomachs, and thak your stars that your head has got something it must think of, and your hands something that they must do.”

— Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone.

2 thoughts on “Reductionist Persuits”

  1. Quite right, but I think it’s interesting to see how often when given time and space to think, people use that priviledge for working out ways of putting other people down, of torturing and causing pain, or of increasing their own importance or wealth. CS Lewis wrote in “The Abolition of Man” about science and nature, and how the current science has a tendency to reduce things to “just” the action of chemicals or “just” movement of particles due to forces. He imagined a kind of science that would seek to understand but not reduce, that would seek to explain, but not to explain away. I wonder if such a thing is possible. When I get my own copy of “The Abolition of Man” (lots of ideas for Sci-Fi storylines by the way), I’ll probably post some here.

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