Mental graces

  • Reading time:4 min(s) read

There’s this guy, Lawrence Miles — I think I might have mentioned him. He used to write for the Doctor Who novel range; these days he mostly grouses on the Internet and writes long, analytical books about the series. Some people love them. Others dismiss them, and Miles, out of hand because of his lack of attention to the facts. He makes the mistaken assertion that a sound effect was dubbed in after original broadcast; this means that his argument about the thematic content of a serial is invalid. Therefore his work is useless.

I don’t really see the big deal. What you get out of his writing depends on what you’re looking for — fact or insight. One is not necessary for the other. And if one has to prioritize, I’d say that for something as trivial as art and entertainment, facts are nice but not as interesting as insight.

The problem appears to be a matter of trust; if he gets a few obvious details wrong, then how can a person look to his writing as a source of viable information? What else might he have messed up?

That only strikes me as a problem if you’re looking for raw information, as opposed to an alternative thought process. I haven’t actually read his books, but I find some real value in the weirdest of Miles’ online ramblings. Even when he bases his arguments on false assumptions, or when his biases are glaring from the text, I am often amazed at the clarity of the connections he makes within those boundaries. He’s kind of brilliant in his analysis; all he needs is someone to check him on the details sometimes. As a reader it’s not too hard to do that along the way, and ignore or mentally shift some of his points to put them in line with reality. I think the perspective I gain is usually worth the ongoing translation.

I mean, you can get information anywhere — then once you have it, it’s kind of a dead end. What do you do with it? From madness comes a certain clarity, and Miles exhibits a very lucid madness. I feel it opens the mind somewhat.

There is also this idea that it can’t be insight unless it’s based on fact. If it’s not factual, then it’s fiction — or a flight of baseless fantasy.

That’s silly. Truth and fact are two very different things. Some of the greatest truth and insight comes from fiction. Likewise, facts can easily occlude the truth of a situation by shutting down thought — as if they mean something in and of themselves.

Facts come and go. The way that you process them, that’s universal.

Look, there’s a place for everything. Facts and figures are the intellectual equivalent of brushing your teeth, combing your hair, and choosing a nice shirt in the morning. They make it easier to approach you and listen to what you have to say, but they don’t substantially change what you bring to a conversation.

It is useful to have the right facts when entering a discussion, much as it is useful to wear the right tie and trousers to a function. It cuts down on the amount of parsing required of the other party.

Compare:

“Who is this guy? Does he know where he is? Who does he think he is? Who does he think we are?”

“What is he talking about? That’s not true at all. Where does he get these ideas? This is nonsense.”

So there is a social grace to being cautious with the details. What’s important in the end isn’t the facts that a person waves around; it’s what a person does with the facts.

Reason is a template that stands apart from its context. If a person is totally arbitrary and inconsistent in his argument, then his conclusions would never have a ring of truth regardless of the facts. If a person is totally arbitrary and inconsistent with his facts, there is still a reasonable conclusion to be made with the materials at hand. Straighten the facts, and if the reason is sound enough it will tend to adapt and hold.

I have no idea where Miles gets his starting notions about things. Sometimes they’re kind of bewildering. Given those assumptions, though, I often am inspired by the clarity of his vision.

Then again, it’s not hard for me to compensate for the warped lens that he uses. Maybe you don’t think it’s worth the energy. I don’t think it takes much energy at all. I guess I just lack those social graces.