“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.(from “Through the Looking Glass”, by Lewis Carroll)
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. There goes the shawl again!”
It’s New Year’s Eve. 2022 is over; 2023 is about to begin — and it feels no later than 2020 to me. Reality has been grim, and at times terrible. Each of the past three years has been an objectively rotten one, and there’s no certainty — or even cause for suspicion — that this next one will be much better. In light of this, I’ve decided to make a confession about reality versus fantasy:
Some days I choose to believe in a flat Earth.
Yes, I know the science. I know about the ship going over the horizon (or, on rare occasions, sinking) so that I can’t see the hull. I’m aware of the measurements of Eratosthenes and his stick, apocryphal though they may be; I’ve read of Columbus and Cook and even Phileas Fogg. Great circle routes don’t confound me, and ballistics tables for artillery are well within my comprehension.
Nevertheless, some days, I opt to believe that the Earth is flat. It’s less an amusing exercise (though it is that) and more the active refusal to tolerate hidebound thinking. When we reject our initial assumptions, we open our minds to new and sometimes useful possibilities that, in the normal course of life, we’d never even consider.
The other day I encountered a book involving an aeroplane race over a toroidal world. Before that, I’d read one where interplanetary travel was possible using hot-air balloons, and where pi was precisely three rather than three-and-a-bit. Occasionally, I even converse with people who tell me that communism is the perfect system, or others who are devout followers of Ayn Rand. Knowing that these worldviews are entirely fantastic is no bar to communication once one has trained oneself to accept the impossible.
Consider too the realm of fiction written in worlds where faster-than-light travel is practicable. Star Wars and Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica and Dr. Who — All these are based on impossibilities and paradoxes, and yet, if we choose to suspend our disbelief, we can use these as a basis to confront even more difficult concepts. Star Wars teaches us that inclusivity defeats racism and that David can beat Goliath; Star Trek lets us imagine life in a society without money; Dr. Who illustrates the boundless power of kindness. Once we manage to envision the impossible, we can imagine a path from here to there — the first step on the road to achieving them.
Practical advantages aside, there’s one additional benefit to my own flat-Earth theories: It prevents me from automatically accepting things just because I’m told them. Such great minds as Thoreau, Sartre, and Nietzche all inveighed against this sort of blind obedience, and they had their reasons — but mine are more personal. I enjoy the idea of having a mind that’s independent. It helps me bear the rather depressing yet equivalent truth that there exists almost no actual cogitation in the world, and that the overwhelming majority of humanity drifts through their lives by habit, exercising rote responses to stimuli rather than active decision-making more than ninety-nine times out of a hundred.
I won’t attempt to persuade you of the truth of my beliefs, not unless I’m asked very nicely. You no doubt have yours, and you might even take great comfort in your own set of illusions. Who am I to deny you that?
Nevertheless, I can and will assert that Santa Claus is alive and well, that magic is very real, and even from time to time that the Earth is flat.
Take issue if you will. I’m not ashamed.
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