Pharyngula

Alan Moore at Cheltenham

Last night at the Cheltenham Science Festival, I attended a Q&A between Robin Ince and Alan Moore; Robin had stumbled onto the easiest job in the universe, because all you have to do is tickle Moore a little bit and deep rumbly and heavily accented weirdness comes pouring out. Much of the talk was about Moore’s belief in magic — in a science festival, you say? Yes, and it actually made a lot of sense.

Moore has an affinity for a 2nd century oracular sock puppet, but he doesn’t worship it. He believes in magic, but he doesn’t believe in the supernatural. He also doesn’t like religion. I agreed with almost everything he said 100% (although he did speculate a bit about the absence of explanation for memory, which he thought was a mystery because there are no changes in the structure of the brain that last for more than a few weeks, which is total bullshit, and he wondered if the purpose of junk DNA was to store memories, which is bullshit on fire. But, OK, the rest of the talk was mostly fun.)

Moore is a writer, and his explanation was basically that the weirdness was to spark creativity; for instance, he talked about staring into a quartz crystal and seeing visions, but he was quite plain that it wasn’t supernatural, it wasn’t the crystal, it was his own mind generating and imposing ideas on what he saw. And that’s all right with me — it fits very well with how I see science functioning.

I would make a comparison with how evolution works…OK, partly because everything reminds me of evolution, but also because it’s entirely analogous. The most productive processes are those that are in a state of tension between chaos and discipline, in which randomness generates variety and spawns all kinds of wild diversity, while discipline culls the unproductive dead-ends and shapes the riot to move in a useful direction. That’s evolution: mutation and the accumulation of random variation in a population are the “magic”, entirely natural and entirely uncontrolled, while natural selection is the discipline that maintains viability. For a writer like Moore, magic is whatever fires up the imagination and triggers new thoughts, and the discipline must come from skill with language and storytelling.

Moore didn’t say this, but I’d love to ask him what he thinks of something I’ve believed for a long time: our imaginations are weak and pathetic. For the most part, the human mind prefers to travel along well-worn ruts and not strike off into new territory very often. Imagination isn’t actually an act of will, it’s not something our brains are good at, but what imagination actually is is a receptivity to novel external input, and a willingness to bumble along following a weird stimulus. We don’t generate it, we simply respond to a jostling off the track by either, most of the time, trying to get back on the track, or if you’re like Alan Moore, wandering happily off onto strange new frontiers.

So keep on trusting in the sock-puppet, or (once upon a time) taking hallucinogenic drugs, or staring at crystals, or dealing tarot cards, or using random number generators to spark novelty. It really does work well, and better than relying on narrow reason, which tends not to deviate much from what has worked before. But avoid religion: in this view, religion is a process that takes a creative tangent and turns it into a great deep hardline rut, the antithesis of what is wanted.