50 years ago today, the Tet Offensive began.
Everyone knew it was coming. At the U.S. Tactical Operation Center in Saigon, they had a betting pool going as to when the attacks would start.
But it turns out that–as at Pearl Harbor–the knowledge that the enemy is about to attack is, by itself, actually completely useless. What you need to know is when, where and how. If you don’t have those specifics, even if you know something is coming, you can still be caught completely off guard.
Which is exactly what happened.
From the invention of the telegraph and photography, media and communications technology proceeded so quickly that future historians may see them not as separate technologies, but as different phases in the development of one thing.
Until the Unprecedented Era, technology and natural philosophy were separate. When gunpowder was developed, it was because it worked, not because anyone realized that sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate could be combined to produce an explosive (as opposed to nitroglycerin, which was developed from chemistry). When medieval peasants spread marl on their fields, they didn’t know they were returning calcium and magnesium to the soil. They had no idea what was happening. They just knew it increased yields.
Which doesn’t mean that a natural philosopher, if asked, would not have come up with an explanation of why it increased yields. Great men of learning, with long forked beards and impressive academic robes, did not get to their status by shrugging their shoulders and mumbling “I dunno.” If anyone ever inquired, they would have had long and elegant theories, rife with Aristotle and Plato. And if any other natural philosophers had been within earshot, they probably would have produced their own theories, leading to extensive and erudite debate.
And they all would have been wrong. Just because you have an explanation–even an impressive explanation–doesn’t mean that explanation has the slightest connection to reality.
It was nuclear war. The missiles were flying. We were in a bunker of some sort, with many others. Already two bombs had hit–I saw the second mushroom cloud rise, over Vermont in the distance. A third was headed directly for us. Even with the shelter, we were doomed. Everyone was screaming. Here it comes–it’s about to hit–
And it did. But there was no mushroom cloud. No explosion at all. We crowded around to inspect it.
The missile that had hit us was not a missile, but a rocket from space filled with alien technology. Far from being the end of humanity, we were on the brink of a space opera era.
My dream got me with a plot twist. And not like a dream logic twist. Something you could actually put in a story. My own subconscious plot twisted me.
If there were any belief system that consistently produced saints–that is, if there were any system of ideas of which all its holders behaved, once they adopted said ideas, in observably good ways, to their benefit and the benefit of those they met–there were would be no more argument. All humanity would be naturally drawn to those ideas. All other ideas would die out.
That would be a disproof of nihilism.
But there is no such belief system.
“In 1641, that curious ruling prince, Charles IV de Lorraine, found himself short of cavalry horses, and without means of buying any. Nothing daunted, he raised the cry of the Church in danger, convened his clergy, and made them an eloquent address in the principal church of his capital. While he was doing so, his troopers stole all the horses of the assembled ecclesiastics.”
–W.H. Lewis, The Splendid Century
Imagine you read a book a day, 365 books a year, 3,650 books a decade. We’ll even grant that you have perfect recall; every iota of information in these books enters your brain and is fully accessible at all times. Over the course of a 65-year adulthood, you will read 23,725 books, fiction and nonfiction, cutting through all subject areas, a rich cross-section of human existence conveyed in print form.
In the United States alone, in 2015 alone, more than 700,000 titles were published.
Understanding the World is akin to putting together a 10000-piece jigsaw puzzle of which you have been given one thousand randomly selected pieces.