Getting Shirty about Things: How Mere Mortals Are Defeated by Metaphysics

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BYLINE: Colin Bower

No man willingly wears a dirty shirt. Yet, at some stage between early morning, when a man dons a clean shirt, and late evening, when he removes a dirty shirt and tosses it contemptuously into the laundry basket, he is knowingly wearing a dirty shirt.

For if it was dirty when he took it off, it was previously also dirty. He perceives the shirt to have been clean all day, but somehow instantaneously dirty only at the moment of removal. Thus there are millions of men worldwide who spend a good part of every day wearing dirty shirts. That this occurs does not represent a failure of hygiene, but the failure of Newtonian science, which posits an imperturbably linear dimensionality to the world in which we stake out our lives, largely oblivious to the terrifying chasm of metaphysical uncertainty that threatens our certain certainties.

Let me explain. A dirty shirt when it is removed at 6pm is no more embarrassing and uncomfortable than a dirty shirt at, say, 3pm. Yet few men that I know take along a clean shirt to work to change into at the precise moment when their clean shirt has become dirty.

There is a good reason for this that has nothing to do with convenience, and everything to do with metaphysical uncertainty. For exactly when does a clean shirt become dirty? If we knew, we would be able to change it at the appropriate time. We can certainly define what constitutes a dirty shirt, and we can submit any shirt we wear to a dirty shirt test. But at what point does this happen?

Oh Euclid, Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, Richard Dawkins and all you writers of bumper stickers whereso'er you may be. This is not a question; this is an exclamation of despair. When does a clean shirt become dirty? When does the sun set? When do I enter the room? When does any event take place?

Watch the sun go down over the Atlantic from your parking space above Camps Bay, for instance, and say when it disappears. Yes, we know when it is still visible. And we know when it is invisible. But exactly when does the transition take place?

A moment's reflection will tell us that this is and must perforce always be a puzzle beyond the solution of the science we currently master.

This is for the very good reason that, as prosaic as the question "when does an event happen?" may ostensibly be, it is of course a metaphysical question. …