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Looking for the black cat

It is not often that a column elicits such a response as ‘On reading’ did last week. There was a steady stream of emails and messages – from abroad and Pakistan – that poured into my inbox. Many readers shared their own experiences of reading and some raised new questions and wanted answers.

One foreign diplomat had the following to say: ‘My target this calendar year is to read 100 books and so far I’m on track: 46 read so far.’ This confirms that the target of reading at least 50 books in a year is not so farfetched. One reader, Zahid Nawaz AFdil asked how to extract what the author has not written. How to select good books? How do we know/judge the technique/mode used by the author?’

Another reader Fawad Khan wrote: ‘It would be helpful for competitive exam seekers if you write your experience on enhancing writing skills’. Mehrab Lakhiar shared that in rural areas if someone finds out that you read, they suggest you don’t read books since they make people mentally ill. Javed Iqbal Mirani asked how to determine what field is best for one’s future, since many ‘students of social sciences can’t perceive which field is best for them.’

There were many more questions. I will try to respond to some of them here. Zahid Nawaz Adil who is interested in history, philosophy, and politics wants to know how he can extract what the author has not written. This is an intriguing question in the sense that it tries to explore the deeper quarters of an author who tries to convey messages between the lines. Most writers that I have read do manage to convey what they want to say. If a reader has to make a lot of effort to extract what the author has not written, perhaps the reader is trying to catch a black cat in a black room and perhaps the cat is not there at all.

Now this gives me an excuse to share with my readers the famous ‘Black Cat analogy’ which in a comic way helps us understand the differences between various fields of study. In this analogy, philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat. Of course, it is an uphill task but it beautifully captures the challenges we face while reading and understanding philosophy. Some people consider metaphysics to be part of philosophy and others draw a fine line between them. Our analogy says that metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there.

Here I tend to agree, as to me metaphysics is distinct from philosophy for it keeps shooting in the dark trying to hit the target, never realizing the futility of this exercise. But then, should we read about metaphysics or just leave it? Some suggest that it is a waste of time, and since we are hard pressed to read other stuff, metaphysics is not something we should be spending our time on. I have a different take, since metaphysics has influenced a majority of people throughout centuries, I just can’t skip it without reading.

Mysticism is a case in point. Our educational system has developed a certain affection for it. One can’t agree or disagree with it, without first trying to comprehend what it means. You need to know why so many people try to look for a black cat which is not there. Maybe they don’t know the cat is not there. If you try to tell them about the absence of the cat, they don’t believe you. But why? This tendency needs exploration, so you just can’t brush it aside.

The Black Cat analogy further says that theology is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there, and shouting ‘I found it’. How interesting! This assumes the absence of the cat, and the elation of the people in boasting about having found something that isn’t there. This is a hard nut to crack as the emerging questions may land you in trouble in a country such as Pakistan.

The problem is that the presumed cat is of different breeds, and each seeker of the cat claims that his or her breed is the best. Some people have found not one but many, in fact hundreds of cats – each specializing in specific fields. If the cat – which perhaps is not there, but most people have found it – gets angry it can hurt you real bad. Even bigger problems arise when one imaginary cat is imposed on other imaginary cats, and you can’t express your inability to see the cat, so you start pretending that the cat is actually there.

The analogy moves on to assert that applied or natural sciences are like being in a dark room looking for a cat while using a flashlight. I think this is the best of all analogies as it tells that the vast expanses of the universe may be a dark room for us – from the micro world of quantum physics to the macro picture of black holes – and to extract some meaning from it we must use a flashlight. That flashlight is our active observation that goes beyond the assumptions of metaphysics and theology.

Lastly, according to the same analogy, social sciences are like being in a dark room suspecting from the beginning that there is a black cat somewhere and emerging from the room with scratches on the forearm as vindication. Here the dark room is your society itself, and the black cat is the comprehension of the society you are looking for. When you suspect, you make a hypothesis about some understanding you want to achieve. Then you go to find the black cat, but society is too complex to fit in a neat set of ideas or theory.

When you grapple with the ground realities of life in society you may end up getting bruised. So at the end of most social explorations, there are more questions than answers, and that is the beauty of the social sciences which keep you on tenterhooks without giving you absolute answers, which theology claims to have given you and applied sciences promise to offer. There are multiple versions of the Black Cat analogy with varying degrees of explanations. It is up to the reader to decide what he or she wants to extract and from where.

I may also suggest that in this discussion, at least three writers have significant value to add: Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, and Ernest Gellner, who should be read in this order. Bertrand Russell’s writings have been translated into Urdu too. He is more accessible than the other two, but he can prime your pump for more challenging readings from Karl Popper, who in turn will prepare you to read Gellner. Reading and understanding these writers helps in evaluating and judging other writers too.

Email: mnazir1964@yahoo.co.uk

Dr Naazir Mahmood, "Looking for the black cat," The News. 2021-06-09.
Keywords: Education , Educational system , Writing skills , Metaphysics , Philosophy , Javed Iqbal Mirani , Fawad Khan , Pakistan