Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Surely everyone knows the classic Ray Charles and Betty Carter duet in which Ray is intent on getting Betty to stay at his place for just one more drink, while Betty protests, insisting she can’t.  Hammering away with insistence that “It’s cold outside,” Ray eventually prevails on Betty to stay and enjoy the fire.  Snuggling up to him, happy to be together in harmony, Betty joins Ray in singing the final line, “Ah, but it’s cold outside!”

It’s a great study of persuasion in action – the use of words to produce apparent agreement.  I say “apparent” because – well, no, on second thought, I won’t go there.  The time’s not right to take up the subject of the obstacles words pose for minds that wish to share the same thought.  For today, let’s assume that words mean the same thing for everybody. And let’s use them, like Ray Charles so artfully does, for making a case.

If you’ve been following this website, you know that one of our friends made a suggestion that we include one or more “objective truths that everybody could agree on.”  Daunted by the prospect, I sought help from our readers.  The first to answer the call was my longtime friend Ann Beale.  Picking up where Ray and Betty left off, Anne declared that an objective truth to which everyone could agree was, “It’s cold outside.”

Now, I thought this nomination brilliant.  If you don’t know Anne, she lives in South Dakota, where the average low temperature in December is 5 degrees Fahrenheit, the average high only 25.   As it happens, reading Anne’s comment was the first thing I did after getting up at 6:00 a.m., and I was still dressed in the wool sweater I’d worn under the covers during the night – a wool sweater I’d worn over a night shirt, which I’d worn over a tee shirt, which I’d over a tank top.  With the help of these four layers, I’d endured a night of record low temperatures here in Virginia, but with the covers off, I was already shivering as I sat down at my desktop to read Anne’s post.  So I had no choice but to agree with her – it was very cold outside.

Then I read the nomination submitted by another long time friend, Philip McIntyre. Philip nominated an entire slate of candidates.  His description of his nominees – the physical laws of nature – wasn’t quite as pithy as Anne’s, but (always gracious) Philip pointed out that perhaps his post “built on” Anne’s.  You can read Philip’s comment for yourself, but I’d venture the opinion that Philip actually agreed with Anne regarding her nominee: that it was, in fact, cold outside.  One of Philip’s sentences began, “The cold temperature outside right now is…” which strikes me as coming pretty doggone close to agreement. (Philip, I might point out, lives in Buffalo, where the average low in December is 11, and the high, at 31, is still below freezing.)

Now, at that point, I was surprised, but elated.  As best I could tell, (“with three precincts reporting”) there was universal acceptance of an objective truth.  It was, in fact, cold outside.  But then, this morning, as I sat down to record my elation and post “It’s Cold Outside” on the WMBW website’s Home page, I discovered a third nomination.  While the third comment didn’t expressly disagree with Anne – while it wasn’t so contentious, for example, as to say, “Heck no, you fool, it’s hotter ‘n blazes, dammit!” – the writer did write, “Mightn’t the only objective truth be that we do not know what we do not know?”

Definitely food for thought there; I for one was tempted to make a fine breakfast of it, for at least several paragraphs.  But loath to digress, I strove to stay focused on the question at hand – i.e., could everyone agree, “It’s cold outside” – ?  The new writer’s suggestion that there might be only one objective truth everyone could agree on – and that such uniquely objective truth was neither a physical law of nature nor a statement about the weather – forced me to conclude that the new writer was advancing a position in irreconcilable  disagreement with Anne.

I hasten to add that the writer – my brother David – lives in south Georgia, where the average high this time of year is a near-tropical 65.  Well, there you go.  Despite his obvious effort to avoid confrontation with his friends to the north, David, by postulating that he might have put forward the only objective truth, had in a single stroke destroyed our unanimity of belief. (It was easy to see, in that moment, how the Civil War might have started, and as my long time friend Ron Beuch has now suggested with his comment — even as I write this post –bias can be very hard to shed.)

We May Be Wrong is a truly nascent phenomenon.*  During our first three weeks of existence, our growth has been phenomenal.  We already have a huge number of readers.  (At least thirty, I’d be willing to bet.)  But even with only four of us weighing in on the question, we appeared unable to agree that “It’s cold outside” was an objective truth which everybody could agree to.

Now, saddened as I was at this setback, I turned to Philip’s nominees – the physical laws of nature.  Searching for the sort of harmony Ray Charles had achieved with Betty Carter, I asked myself, is it possible that we four, at least, could all agree to the objective truth of Philip’s nominees?  I mean, perhaps, in South Dakota, “It’s Cold Outside” is a physical law of nature.   And perhaps “We don’t know what we don’t know” is a physical law of nature in south Georgia.  So maybe Philip’s comment deserved a closer look.  Maybe, if Anne and David already considered their nominations to be physical laws of nature, they already agreed with Philip, implicitly, and in that case, if I could see my way clear to agreement, Philip’s nomination would have agreement from all four of us.  (And maybe the other twenty-six of us, like Betty Carter, would eventually come around?)

First, I was a little concerned that Philip hadn’t nominated any one Law of Nature in particular, or even multiple such laws, but simply a category, “Physical Laws of Nature.”  It’s been a long time since I was in school, and if I ever knew, I’ve forgotten just how many physical laws of nature the experts have determined there are.   In fact, I’m left wondering what, exactly, a Physical Law of Nature is.  But as with the obstacles posed by words, I’ll forego the temptation to go down that perilous path.  Assume with me, if you will, that we all share a common understanding of what the Laws of Nature are.

I understand that this assumption is not an easy one to make.  In Philip’s comment, he writes, “The problem is, they [the laws of Nature] are so hard to understand.”  Well, I’d sure agree with that.  Relativity?  The space-time continuum?  Quantum mechanics?  They all elude my full understanding, to be sure, and maybe my partial understanding as well.  In fact, even gravity sometimes mystifies me (and not only when I’ve had too much to drink).  But that’s precisely why I wonder about Philip’s statement that, “properly understood,” the physical laws of nature are constant and immutable.  Having agreed that such laws are very hard to understand, I have great difficulty agreeing with anything about what they are when they’re “properly understood,” because I doubt very much that I properly understand them.

But surely I quibble.  And meanwhile, I’m actually more troubled by a different question.  Philip writes that the physical laws of nature are “constant and immutable” in the sense that they “will produce exactly the same result every time in exactly the same set of circumstances.”  I’ve been up all night (well, much of it, anyway) pondering the significance of the italicized words in that sentence.

Now, before I continue, I should acknowledge my own biases.  I personally believe in the value of the scientific method.  As I understand it, scientific “proofs” are all about “reliability” which I believe is the scientific word for what Philip is talking about.  When the scientist keeps extraneous factors under “control,” and can accurately predict the outcome of an experiment time and time again, always getting the same (predictable, identical) result, the scientist is said to have demonstrated “reliability.”   It’s another word for scientific “proof,” as far as I know.  I think there’s much to be said for the scientific method, as a means of learning new things about the physical world.  So if there’s any confirmation bias at work here, I’m pre-wired to agree with what Philip is saying.

But his qualification, “in exactly the same set of circumstances,” nags at me.  Can something be said to be a “law” at all, much less a “constant and immutable” one, if it all depends on an exact set of circumstances?  Isn’t a “law,” by definition, something that operates across circumstances?  There’s a saying in the (legal) law that you can’t have one rule for Monday and another for Tuesday.  It stands for the proposition that for a law to be a law, it has to apply to varied circumstances.  The trooper who issues a speeding ticket says, “I’m sorry, sir, but that’s the law,” by which he is essentially saying, “it doesn’t matter that you’re late for a meeting; the law is the law.  Circumstances don’t matter.”  Believe me, I know that laws often get riddled with exceptions which are essentially driven by variations in circumstance.  Murder?  >> Guilty!  (Oh, self-defense? >> an exception >> innocent.  But murder!  >> Guilty!  Oh, insanity?  >> an exception >> innocent.)   But in the legal world, I’d venture to say, the exceptions are like little “mini-laws” that live within the more general law, running contrary to it in result, but similar to it in form, in that they apply to all the circumstances they purport to include.  Riddled as they are with exceptions, both the general laws themselves and the little “mini-laws” that deal with exceptions are general principles that cut across variations in circumstance.  So I wonder: if every single variation in circumstance had its own special “law,” would there really be any law at all?   With each thing subject to rules applicable only to it, wouldn’t we have anarchy and lawlessness?

David’s nominee, “We do not know what we do not know,” strikes me as a classic tautology, a class of self-evident propositions that also includes “All I can say is what I can say,” “a rose is a rose…” and (importantly) “we do know what we do know.” As such, rather than being the only objective truth, it seems one of a type of an infinite number of truths. At the point at which each unique thing in the world can claim that it is what it is, that it does what it does, etc., it seems plausible to think we might not have objective truth at all, but the very essence of complete subjectivity.

As Philip appears to acknowledge, Anne’s nominee, “It’s cold outside,” seems to result from a constant and immutable set of laws, in the sense of being scientifically predictable, repeatable, and reliable — as long as you remain “in exactly the same set of circumstances.” For people in South Dakota, in the month of December, when there are no forest fires raging for miles around, when the sun is at an oblique angle to the hills around Sioux Falls, when none of the moose are wearing overcoats or carrying space heaters, etc. etc.) it will always be cold outside.

Last night I finished the book of David Foster Wallace essays, Both Flesh and Not, in which I read Wallace’s delightful essay, “Twenty Four Word Notes.” In that essay, Wallace discusses the class of adjectives that he calls “uncomparables,” the first of which is the word “unique.”  Since “unique” means “one of a kind,” he points out that one thing cannot be more “unique” than another; a thing is either unique or it’s not.  Wallace asserts that other uncomparable adjectives include precise, correct, inevitable, and accurate.  “[I]f you really think about them,” he writes, “the core assertions in sentences like, ‘War is becoming increasingly inevitable as Middle East tensions rise,’ [is] nonsense.   If something is inevitable, it is bound to happen; it cannot be bound to happen and then somehow even more bound to happen.”

Philip’s comment uses three key adjectives in describing the physical laws of nature.  He calls them “objective,” “constant” and “immutable.”  I’ll bet that if David Wallace were still alive, he’d agree that “constant” and “immutable” are uncomparables, and perhaps “objective” as well.  If you’re not always constant, then are you really constant at all?  If you’re not always “immutable” – because, on some occasions, you can change – then are you “immutable” at all? If something is “objective” because it doesn’t depend on one’s individual circumstances, then can it depend on any individual circumstances at all, and still be objective?

It seems to me that the class of tautologies comprises an infinitely large class of “truths” because everything is what it is, everything does what it does, and none of these subjective “truths” have to apply to anything else.  So it strikes me as pertinent to ask, ‘Does a truth transcend mere tautology when it applies to anything more than itself?’  And if so, once the gap between two discrete indivisible units is bridged by a “law” that applies to both, is it now a “law of nature” in any meaningful sense?  A constant, immutable, objective truth, because it applies to not just a single set of circumstances, but a second set, as well?   I wonder whether, to qualify as a constant, immutable “objective truth,” a law would only have to apply to two sets of circumstances, or to ten, or to a hundred?

if the “physical laws of nature” include Einsteinian relativity, then isn’t everything ultimately dependent on point of view (i.e., subjective?)  Well, not the great constant, c, the speed of light, you say?  But as I understand it, the speed of light in a vacuum can never be surpassed provided we’re not talking about dark matter, black holes, or parallel universes, and provided we’ve narrowed our consideration to the post-Big Bang era, which insulates our perspective as surely (it seems to me) as the vast Atlantic Ocean insulated pre-Columbian Europe.  And if scientists admit (as I understand they do) that for time prior to the Big Bang, all bets are off, then how is our understanding of physical laws not dependent on our point of view, i.e., subjective?

So pending a reply from Philip or others, who may yet convince me I’m wrong, I’m not yet prepared to agree that the physical laws of nature can lay claim to being “objective” truth.  The original challenge put to the website was to include not just any old objective truth, but an objective truth everyone could agree to.  Alas, much as I hope for our readership to grow, I fear this website may never appeal to those who live on the other side of the Bang, or in any quadrant of the multiverse, or in the world of dark matter, for that matter.

Oh well.  A day or so ago, when there were only three of us, I was, for however brief a time, able to bask in the comfort of pure harmony, knowing everyone agreed that it’s cold outside.  Today, I’ll close by reporting that it’s a few degrees warmer outside.  And in the game of Hide and Seek in which I fear never coming to know the truth, I think that warmth means I may be getting closer.


* Nascent: “(especially of a process or organization) just coming into existence and beginning to display signs of future potential.” – See


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5 thoughts on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

  1. I’m at least as relativistic a guy as anyone. In college many years ago, I was often accused of espousing “situational ethics”, and it was a good rap. I have hard-won, strongly felt reasons to avoid “black and white” moral views. I generally prefer shades of gray. But — when challenged by this website to come up with an objective truth, I came up with “the physical laws of nature”.

    I stand by what I said. Perhaps it would be better to abandon the “laws of nature” portion of that statement, which may be a little imprecise; so let’s amend it to “the laws of physics”.

    I’m not a scientist and don’t really know what a “law of physics” means, exactly. But let’s talk in practical terms. Suppose you are firing bullets from a rifle. What are the forces (laws of physics) that propel a bullet from the rifle to the target? I suppose they are factors related to metallic striking force, and fire, and gunpowder and burn, and speed and acceleration, and I don’t know what all else. Let’s call them, altogether, a law of physics. That may be incorrect terminology, but surely there are multiple different laws of physics involved here and I say we are talking about a combination “law”. Ok, so be it.

    If you are using a certain specific rifle, and certain specific ammunition, and you fire your bullets at a certain specific target (say, 3 feet thick of a certain dense target material) from a certain specific distance, I think you will expect the bullets to penetrate the same distance into the target EVERY TIME. If some bullets penetrate a different difference some times — i.e., to a shallower or deeper level — I think you will assume poor quality control on the part of either the bullet manufacturer or the target manufacturer. I think that you, the shooter, fully understand my statement that the laws of physics (nature) are completely predictable and will result in exactly the same result every time given exactly the same circumstances.

    I further think that you would expect a different depth of penetration into the target if one were to change the circumstances. Suppose a half-inch thick board of oak were to be placed in front of the target. Or an eighteen-inch bale of hay. Or an eighth-inch sheet of iron. In any of these cases, I think you would fully expect a different result than the one you saw with the simple target experience — and I further expect that you would expect different results in each of these cases. You would be assuming that you would have EXACTLY THE SAME RESULTS as in the unaltered target range situation, except for the fact that the circumstances were altered: so you would subtract various amounts of penetration distance based on your views of how much obstruction was presented by the oak, or hay, or iron.

    To summarize, physical laws of nature (read: laws of physics) will produce the same result every time in the same circumstances — but will produce different results in different circumstances. This should not be surprising. Same law, different circumstances. Same cold front, different temperatures in Georgia versus South Dakota versus Buffalo NY. I submit that the fact the result will change with the circumstances does not alter the immutability of the law. So, despite being a very relativistic guy, I suggest that the laws of physics are objectively true, i.e. immutable, immune to anyone arguing that they are relative in any way.

    You may argue that if changing the circumstances changes the result, the law is “relative”, i.e. not objectively true and constant. I say that the law remains the same, like the force on the bullet; it is only differences in the obstacle that it hits — the oak, or the hay, or the iron — that change the result. The changes are due to these surrounding circumstances, not the force (laws of physics).

    I realize that some may say: there is no actual reality other than what I perceive; you may perceive a cow (or say that you do), but I perceive something else altogether. Yes I have encountered this theory before, and dwelled in it too. But miracle of miracles: anyone I have encountered to whom I have pointed out a certain physical object HAS ACTUALLY PERCEIVED THAT SAME OBJECT, and has described it in terms that had meaning to me. So although I accept the possibility that there is no reality other than one’s own brain’s perceptions, I think that is an inoperable conceit. And thus I believe that the “laws of physics” that I perceive are the same as the ones (by whatever terms you call them) that you perceive.

    1. Philip –

      Thanks so much for the comment.

      1. It’s late, but at first read, I think you may have caught me in some sloppy thinking. Did I wrongly confuse the unchanging operation of the law with the changing result when the law is applied to different circumstances? If so, my bad; I thank you for pointing out my sloppiness.

      2. Regarding your assertion that when you look at an object, others report seeing the same thing as you, you must live in any extremely homogeneous place compared to where I’ve lived. I used to be astounded at how often, when I saw one thing, others reported seeing something quite different. These days, I’ve come to accept all those conflicting perceptions as the natural and normal state of things.

      3. How do you square your point about the constancy of physical laws with the lessons of quantum mechanics? If I correctly understand what they say about quantum mechanics, and if what I’ve heard said about them is true, then the laws of physics will not, in fact, produce the same result every time — they’ll produce a very random set of results, with each observation changing the result observed. Do you understand quantum mechanics differently than I describe it here?

      4. You urge looking at this as a practical matter. I think that’s a very key distinction. As a practical matter, I can agree with you about the constancy of the laws of physics. I’ve been able to get around quite well in life thinking of the world as essentially flat, as a practical matter, since my stride is not so great as to feel the earth’s curvature. As a practical matter, I don’t need to concern myself with what will happen to me if I approach the speed of light, because I likely never will. As a practical matter, we do rather well with approximations, but approximations only seem to hold true among the things of our approximate size and speed. Science now teaches us that the principles that appear to hold true “as a practical matter” aren’t exactly accurate at different sizes and speeds. When you speak of what seems to be consistent operation of physical laws as a practical matter, you seem to be suggesting that if what I perceive seems immutable, then I should feel justified in extrapolating that the “real” laws of physics are likewise immutable. If I still lived in a world that was flat, and had never heard of the space time continuum, black holes, quantum mechanics, and such, I suspect I’d be apt to extrapolate that way from what I perceive to what’s too fast, or too vast, or too tiny, to perceive. But science has proven our crude understandings to be wrong so often, I’m not willing to extrapolate that way. It strikes me as an error much like our tendency to anthropomorphize things. Since we don’t understand God, we suppose him to be like what we’re familiar with – us. Since we can’t really grasp the idea of curved space, we suppose it to be like what we’re familiar with – three dimensional Euclidean space. But extrapolations from the familiar to the unfamiliar bother me, especially because there may be good reason that the unfamiliar is unfamiliar – namely, that it’s radically different from what’s familiar, and that’s why we can’t perceive or understand it.

      5. I think I said in an early post that I am undecided on the question of whether any objective truth exists. The laws of physics – whatever they are – have long been my leading candidates for “objective truths” if indeed there be any. But I believe pretty strongly that we’re incapable of knowing for certain whether something is an objective truth or not. I’m a lot more focused on this limited ability to understand things than I am the question of what truths may exist that escape our understanding, and it seems to me there’s good reason to be focused on the one and not the other. See point 6.

      6. Call the incomprehensible “X.” Assert that X is universal, constant, and immutable. Assert that X is an Objective Truth. Assert that X accounts for the existence of everything else that exists, as well as for the non-existence of everything that doesn’t exist. Admit that we don’t fully understand it, because it lies beyond our understanding.
      Now divide the world into two groups. Tell one group that “X” is the laws of physics, and the other group that X is God, and watch them fight. Doesn’t it make more sense to focus on the likelihood that we can’t possibly understand something so vast, so powerful, so much bigger than ourselves, than X, rather than to concern ourselves within pinning down exactly what X really is?

      — Joe

      1. Joe — My last post needed much more editing and much less wine. I retract the messed up part about perception. Having illustrated the title of this website, I will take a break and see what others come up with. Phil

        1. Joe wrote:
          “It’s a great study of persuasion in action – the use of words to produce apparent agreement. I say “apparent” because – well, no, on second thought, I won’t go there. The time’s not right to take up the subject of the obstacles words pose for minds that wish to share the same thought. For today, let’s assume that words mean the same thing for everybody. And let’s use them, like Ray Charles so artfully does, for making a case.”

          I will go there. I don’t think we can assume that words mean the same thing for anybody.

          The words are the turbulence (obstacles) that can prohibit agreement. Can it be agreed that everyone knows the difference between hot and cold? This is what I believe was postulated by Anne. Anecdotally touch a hot branding iron to your skin or a piece of dry ice. Both will injure your skin and feel essentially the same. However if you are shoveling snow or tanning at the beach I think you will find universal agreement in the difference.

          From the evidence in their posts alone, I would surmise that Philip is a linear thinker and believer in the scientific method. Joe (Whom I have known and admired for almost 50 years) is a traditional artist who can use words as his medium to paint his hopes for reality. Not a bad trait for a lawyer, recovering or not. These statements are not judgments. They are my envious views of their capabilities.

          If I, having been married for 44 years this spring, make a statement in the woods and my wife Pat is not there to correct me, am I still wrong? Funny, but still relevant to this discussion. Without sentient verification, can any truth exist?

          If you can qualify with assumption then there are probably as many objective truths as you wish to have. Of course they would then be subjective truths and more conducive to a spiritual or moral discussion.

          1. Ron –
            Predictably, I agree with you about words. I think they can (and often do) mean different things to different people — which is why I don’t really know whether I agree with you about Philip or not. (I would not consider him a linear thinker.) Anne, on the other hand, I’ve never been able to figure out. I strongly suspect her tongue was deep in her cheek when she offered “It’s cold outside!” as an objective truth. If my hunch is right, it was more likely a playful, ironic suggestion of complete subjectivity. But of course, I could be wrong.

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