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 https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=nascent