Thoughts and Opinions

Some Thoughts, this Christmas Eve

On the WMBW home page, a brief bio refers to my personal religious leanings as “other — really.”   To elaborate at any length might ruin the Holiday Season for most of you, and it’s Christmas Eve: a voice in my head (that of my late mother, I suspect) urges me to mark the occasion with something appropriate to the season.  So I have a few things to share.

First, I highly recommend David Wong’s wonderful article, “10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (and Must) Agree On.”  It’s from the December 16, 2007 issue of Cracked.  (Along with Mad magazine, Cracked deserves at least some credit or blame for making me the man I am today.)  But while Wong’s article is humorous in many respects, it’s also very much in tune with We May Be Wrong.  Well, sort of.  I mean, actually, since Wong’s 10 Things article has had over 1.8 million views, that’s a bit like like saying the ocean’s in tune with the last drop of rain to fall into it. But I hope you catch my drift.  I really wish not just 1.8 million, but 1.8 billion, had read Wong’s article.  In addition to being the sort of article I’d love to publish on this website, it also has a bunch of really cool pictures. Check them out!

http://www.cracked.com/article_15759_10-things-christians-atheists-can-and-must-agree-on.html

Second, that same voice (yes, now I’m sure it belongs to my late mother) tells me that because it’s Christmas eve, I ought to say something about Jesus.   And since I respect Jesus at least as much as I respect David Wong, I’ll post four of my favorite things about Jesus.

1. He is said to have preached that one should love one’s neighbor, and even one’s enemy.

2.  He is said to have preached, “Whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.”

3. He apparently instructed his followers not to swear.  As I read it, he didn’t seem to be talking about four-letter words; rather, he seemed to be warning against swearing to the certain truth of anything.  (“Swear not at all: neither by heaven… nor by the earth…because thou canst not make one hair white or black.  But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”)

4. It is said that he repeatedly asked his followers, “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

I’d like to think that with that sort of philosophy, if Jesus had been connected to the internet, he might not have disapproved entirely of We May Be Wrong.

My third Christmas offering is a link to a You-Tube video of this season’s performances at our (backyard) Friend’s Theater.

I know that my mother would have liked it.  She was an ardent Christian, but she was also a ham.

As for Jesus, I’d like to think he wouldn’t have been offended that we chose Clark Clement Moore’s poem to perform this season, rather than Luke’s rendition of the Nativity.  As I read the gospels, Jesus comes across as a pretty humble guy who (laughing with us, not at us) might have chuckled at our ineptness — and that’s what I like most about him.

-Joe

 

 

 

 

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

–Joe

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Objective Truth, Anyone?

Friends of ours have been making some great suggestions for the website.  One friend – to whom we owe many thanks — made several suggestions that led to changes in the site.   But one of his suggestions we did not incorporate.  That suggestion was: “If you listed some objective truths that everyone could agree to, the website would have a better chance of surviving.”

As website editor, I didn’t adopt this suggestion since I felt unable to identify an objective truth everyone could agree to — even if the very survival of the website was at stake.

But then another friend came forward with a suggestion of his own.  He opined that if the website’s following is going to continue to grow the way we’d like, it will need a thriving discourse among its readers – a discourse triggered, perhaps, by the founders’ occasional thoughts, but itself becoming the main reason people return to the website. His suggestion was to leave implementation of the first friend’s suggestion up to our readers.  Unsure as I am what the outcome might be, I decided to give our readers that chance.

So, friends:  consider this your chance to contribute to the website in this most fundamental way.  Take a moment, if you would, to write a “comment” in reply to this post.    Do you think there are any objective truths that everyone could agree to? If not, tell us why not.  If so, give us an example.

I’m anxious to see what you come up with. and I fully expect to learn from whatever you choose to share.

— Joe

 

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The Answering Machine

I woke this morning to the sad news that Kessler (our daughter’s dog) was being taken to the Vet today, to be put down.

I went next door, to her house, to say my goodbyes to the dog.  Looking into Kessler’s cloudy eyes, I thought I could see evidence of suffering.  I thought I could see returned affection.  I tried to convey what comfort and love I could, wondering whether I really had any idea what was going through the mind of the dog during these, his last hours– or whether I was projecting my own, human thoughts into him –and whether what I was seeing was merely a reflection of myself.

I also observed the way the three grandchildren were dealing with the situation.  “But, Mom, I don’t want Kessler to die.”  Death is something they’ve never really encountered before.  They’ve seen road kill; they’ve even experienced the death of some of their chickens; but that’s not the same thing.  Kessler is older than any of the kids; he’s been their pet their entire lives; in a few hours, he’ll be gone; they are looking at mortality with new eyes today – experiencing the process, not just the aftermath.

Returning home, I found myself wondering about the difference between adults and children of elementary school age.  These children encounter new things every day. Their lives consist almost entirely of new experiences.  At this point, they seem to take it for granted that they have an awful lot yet to learn.  For them, not understanding things is the normal state of mind.  And I wondered – what happens to us, as we become adults?  How do we lose our childhood sense of wonder, our belief that the world is full of things we do not understand?  How do we come to think that, because we are adults, we now understand so much that we can be sure of ourselves?

As I came back into our house, I noticed a message waiting on our answering machine.  (Yes, Karen and I have land lines, not “smart” phones.)  Picking up the receiver, I listened to a delightful message that Karen had saved.  It had been left, three days ago, by Jackson, our five year old grandson.  The reason she’d saved it was that she is a grandmother and the recording was cute:  Having only made five or six phone calls in his life, Jackson had obviously never encountered an answering machine before.

“We’re not available right now,” said my recorded voice.  “Please leave a message.”

“Poppi?” said Jackson, recognizing my voice.  “This is Jackson.”

A long pause as he awaited a reply that never came.

“Hello.  This is Jackson.  Hello?”

Another pause; the barely audible voice of his mother (coaching him) from the background; her words indecipherable.

“This is Jackson,” he said at last.  “Call me.”

More indecipherable coaching from the background.

“This is Jackson,” he said again.  “Call me.  Goodbye.”

I pictured the scene in my mind, imagining the thoughts that had gone through Jackson’s mind three days ago, during his first encounter with an answering machine.  I’d already been trying to remember what it was like to discover new things all the time, and I couldn’t have asked for a better reminder.  I recalled my own fascination with telephones – maybe 1958 — back in the day when we picked up the receiver and waited for a human being to ask us, “Number please?” Remembering how we’d tell her (yes, always a her) what the number was that we wanted her to connect us to.  How she would magically connect us to others, across vast distances.  We didn’t understand how it all worked, of course, but then, we didn’t expect to.  The world was full of things we didn’t understand.

I was still reminiscing when, at that very moment, the door opened and in walked Jackson, in person this time.  Well, me being an adult and him being a five-year-old, I couldn’t pass up the chance to teach him something about life, by which of course I meant life as it really is.  (You know – I wanted to help him along on his path to an adult world in which he would understand just about everything I understood – even old fashioned answering machines.)  So I decided it was time for Jack to have his second encounter with an answering machine.

“Hey Jack, buddy, come over here.  I’ve got something I’d like you to listen to.”  I picked up the telephone, dialed *86, and pressed 1 to retrieve our messages.  There was only one saved message – Jackson’s.  I put the phone to his ear so that, hearing his own voice, he could learn about answering machines.

There was a confused look on Jack’s face.  I was sure it was because he was perplexed by the sound of his own voice. But when I moved my head closer in order to hear what Jackson was hearing, I could hear a robotic, clipped adult male voice who  (at least from my perspective) sounded nothing like me.

“Voice message received at 2:31 p.m.“ said the robotic recording.  “December 6th.  From (804) 551…”

“Poppi?” asked the living Jackson in front of me, mistaking the robotic voice for mine.  “This is Jackson.” This time, instead of listening to a three day old recording of Jackson, I was looking into his eyes as he spoke.

“Poppi?”  came the reply.  We both heard Jackson’s recorded voice — from three days ago – at the same time.  I waited for him to realize it was his own voice he was listening to.  “This is Jackson,” said the recording.

“Who is this?” asked the real Jackson, standing in front of me – and again, he got an answer.

“Hello?” came the voice from the phone.  “This is Jackson.  Hello?”

“Hello,” replied the little boy in front of me.  “What do you want?”

“This is Jackson” said the recorded voice.  “Call me.”

The living boy in front of me searched his five year old brain for a sensible answer, but found none.  There was a long pause; some muffled whispering in the background could be heard over the phone. Finally, Jackson’s recorded voice broke the silence:

“This is Jackson” it repeated.  “Call me.  Goodbye.”

Without missing a beat, the living boy in front of me politely replied, “Goodbye,” and handed the receiver back to me, obviously very confused.  It took me a long time to stop laughing.  When I’d mustered sufficient composure, I informed Jack that, due to the miracle of the answering machine, the voice he’d been hearing was his own, and that he’d been having a conversation with himself.  His face lit up as my words sank in, and one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen took over his face, and he started laughing with me.  We laughed together for a long time.

It’s a true story, really – at least, it’s the truth as I perceive it.  The story of Jackson and the answering machine is my story; I have no idea how Jackson perceives it; no idea how the story would play out, if he told it, from his perspective.  I wish that, somehow, I could climb into the mind of another person – or even a dog – and see whether we’re perceiving the same reality.  But, sadly, I don’t seem to know how to do that.  Sometimes it seems that what I take to be reality is really nothing other than the playing back of a recording — a recording I don’t recognize, but which, in fact, is only my own voice, repeating things I’ve already thought, and said, and have come to believe I fully understand, and nothing more.

But it’s been a good day, all things considered. True, Jackson and I and the rest of the family are all sad about the passing of our dear friend, Kessler.  But as I think about Jackson and the answering machine – as I’m amused anew by his innocence — as I’m joyful anew at his discovery – I’m especially attracted to the way he was able to laugh at his own folly.  I wish I could learn to do that more myself.

— Joe

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How to Get On Our Mailing List

Several people have reported they’ve been to the WMBW website and can’t find any place to subscribe to the Thoughts and Opinions posts, or to be put on the mailing list.

One interested reader went so far as to insist that the website did not even offer a way to subscribe.  (When we told him he was definitely, unmistakably, absolutely wrong, and called him an idiot, he accused us of hypocrisy — imagine that? 🙂  Just kidding.)

Seriously, for anyone who has missed the websites explanations for how to get on the mailing list, the answer is to click on the round, gray “Follow” icon, which takes you to a screen provided by SpecificFeeds.com (where you can enter the e-mail address where you would like to receive notifications.)

This round, gray “Follow” icon appears (along with other social media icons) at the end of every post on the Thoughts and Opinions page (including this one).  It also appears (along with the other social media icons) in the middle of the screen (quite prominently) once you have been on the website for sixty seconds.  (We thought it a little rude to throw an invitation to Follow us in the middle of the screen before a first-time visitor had even had a chance to look over the home page; if they left the website before sixty seconds was up, odds seemed small they’d want to follow us anyway.  Also, since the same icons appear at the end of every post, and by subscribing, what a visitor is really doing is asking to be notified of more posts, we figured having that option placed at the end of every post made sense.)

FYI, WMBW selected SpecificFeeds.com to provide out mailing list plug-in because:

  • we understand that a third-party provider would help prevent robotic subscribers
  • they appear serious about protecting subscribers’ e-mail addresses, and
  • they allow subscribers several options on how to be receive WMBW news and notifications
  • they were free

That said, we’re really just giving them a try, and if you have complaints or suggestions regarding our subscription process, we’ll love to hear from you.

(And again, we’ll never share our mailing list with anyone.)

 

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Goldilocks and the Case Against Reality

In my last blog, I credited Richard Dawkins with reminding me how human beings are able to see only a narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum.  As Dawkins put it, “[N]atural selection shaped our brains to survive in a world of large, slow things.”  Would we be better off if we could see not only “visible light” but infrared and ultraviolet as well?  Or, like Goldilocks, do we have no use for chairs that are too large or too small?  Are we better off if we devote our attention to the things that are “just right” for creatures of our own size and needs?

I’m no evolutionary biologist, but I’ve long been fascinated by the anthropocentric idea that evolution first made us the dominant species on earth, and will now ensure we remain at the pinnacle of creation – presumably, because we’re so much more intelligent than any other creature on earth, so that no other species will ever be able to catch up.  Some people seem to believe evolution will ensure that our brains get ever larger and that we’ll ascend the evolutionary ladder ever higher toward omniscience.  The idea that, instead, natural selection has shaped our brains “to survive in a world of large slow things” – causing us to be blind to smaller and faster things, for our own good – is surely a different idea of evolution altogether.  I’ve been intending to research that question and to blog about what I found.

This morning, my brother David sent me hurtling in that direction faster and farther than I’d imagined possible.  David – who’s been kind enough to join me in starting We May Be Wrong – sent me a link to an article by Amanda Gefter that appeared in Quanta and was reprinted in The Atlantic.  It’s called The Case Against Reality, about the theories of cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman.  In the article, Hoffman says:

The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false.

The illustration Hoffman proceeds to use, in order to simplify the point, reminded me of the story of Goldilocks.  He asks us to think of a creature that needs water for survival.  Too much of it and the creature will drown; too little and it will die of thirst.  What the creature really needs, for purposes of survival, is simply to know whether something contains a beneficial (medium) amount of water or not.  In Goldilocks terms, that it’s “just right.”

What I’ll call the “Goldilocks factor” strikes me as lying behind our inability to see ultraviolet or infrared light.  We don’t see the extremes of electromagnetic frequencies because we don’t need to, and because having all that extra information would bog down our brains with useless minutiae.  It’s just not efficient for a biological organism to spend its energy dealing with things of no immediate consequence to its survival, and if it took the time to do so, it would be fatal.  If Papa Bear’s porridge is so hot as to scald Goldilocks’ tongue, she has no reason to concern herself with whether its 300 or 350 degrees.  If she did, she’d succumb to what has been aptly dubbed “paralysis by analysis,” and her tongue would get very burned while she figured it out.

Hoffman compares it to what we see on a desktop interface.  We see icons, not binary code.  “Evolution,” he says, “has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviors. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be.”

I hesitate to further describe Gefter’s article lest it decrease the chance you’ll follow the link and read it for yourselves.  But in a nutshell, Hoffman’s view is that the world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality – or that there is no such thing as objective reality — or that the only realities are our individual perceptions – or – well, doggone it, please read the article for yourself.

http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/04/the-illusion-of-reality/479559/

It’s a beaut.  Thanks for sharing it, Dave.

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The Wrong Rainbow

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, is well known for holding no punches.  His attacks on those with whom he disagrees are often scathing.  As he is well aware, there are many who think him arrogant and obnoxious.  (Frankly, count me among them.)  However, I’m grateful for what I’ve learned from him, including the insight which forms the basis of today’s blog.  It comes from his book, Unweaving the Rainbow.

Thanks to the Biblical story of Noah, many of us associate the rainbow with hope.  Count me among those who see great value in hope.  But how good is our understanding of what rainbows are in a physical sense?  Everyone knows you can’t really find pots of gold at their ends, and that they’re really some sort of apparition or mirage – that you can’t get close enough to touch one, or it will disappear.  But what are rainbows — really?

Not only can’t we touch them, we don’t generally hear, smell, or taste them, either.  We might all agree that they are some sort of purely visual phenomenon.  We know what one is, we can all agree on what one is, because when you see one, I likely do too, so we know we’re talking about the same thing, right?

According to Dawkins, wrong.

At this point, please forgive me if I describe what you already know, but for a moment, permit me to summarize some high school learning about light.  First, if you thought that light travels at about 186,000 miles per second – the “c” in Einstein’s famous E=mc2 – you’d be wrong, since that’s only the speed at which light travels in a vacuum.  In fact, when not in a vacuum, light travels at different speeds depending on what medium it’s passing through, and that’s why light speeds up or slows down when it passes from one medium to another.  And that, in turn, is why the light that hits a lens gets refracted (bent) – because it’s passing from one medium (air) into another (glass).  And it gets refracted a second time when it leaves the lens, passing from glass back into the air.  The stratified bands of light we see as a rainbow result when the white light from the sun – white being a mixture of all the wavelengths of visible light — is variously refracted (bent) into the rainbow’s color bands, much the same way the white light from Isaac Newton’s window was bent by a prism to produce separate bands of different colors.   Dawkins: “The prism sorts them out by bending them through different angles, blue through a steeper angle than red; green, yellow and orange through intermediate angles.”  Many of us were taught this in high school.  No big surprise there.

As Dawkins points out, the little lenses that are refracting the light we see as rainbows are individual drops of rain.  And because the rain drops are more or less spherical, their surfaces not only refract (bend) the light, they also reflect it (like mirrors).  So in a sense, we’re not really looking at the rainbow at all, but at a mirror image of it – a reflection of it.  But wait, like the commercials say.  There’s more.

Every single raindrop is refracting and reflecting the sunlight that hits it, breaking that light into its component colors, and bending them differently, sending them out at different angles, the reds in this direction, the blues in that, and so on.  Dawson again: “If your eye gets a beam of green light from one particular raindrop, the blue light from that raindrop goes above your eye, and the red light from that particular raindrop goes below. So, why do you see a complete rainbow?  Because there are lots of different raindrops.  A band of thousands of raindrops is giving you green light (and simultaneously giving blue light to anybody who might be suitably placed above you, and simultaneously giving red light to somebody else below you).”

So in fact, if you climbed a ladder, while you’d still have the sensation of seeing the same rainbow, you’d actually be seeing a very different set of raindrops – or, more precisely, waves of light being refracted and reflected from a very different set of raindrops.  Moreover, Dawkins goes on to explain that the reason the rainbows all look curved is that the raindrops giving you the same color sensation are all at a fixed distance from you.  (Imagine you’re in your high school geometry class, and you’re the point of a compass stuck fast into your graph paper, not moving, while the pencil point at the other side of the compass “describes an arc” or smooth curve around you.  A similar arc-shaped pencil line in the atmosphere is where the rain drops giving you the sensation of red are.  And a slightly different arc-shaped pencil line contains the raindrops sending you the sensation of blue.) But whatever the color band, these sets of raindrops are all at fixed distances from your eyes, which is why you are always at the center of the raindrops you perceive – and why rainbows always form a curve, precisely, with you at the center.

If by “rainbow,” then, we don’t mean a bunch of transparent raindrops in the sky, but an arc-shaped spectral band of color, it follows that a rainbow – like all beauty – lies in the eyes of the beholder.  Quite literally, if you move just a step or two in a different direction, you’ll be seeing a different set of raindrops – a different rainbow from anyone else around you, and one that only becomes “real” once it’s inside your eyes.

That brings me to some final observations.  Traditional thinking has long been that the colors we perceive result from the fact that we human beings have three types of cone cell in our retinas, one of which generally responds to short wavelengths of light, one to medium wavelengths, and one to long wavelengths.   Yet recent discoveries show that there are some people, called tetrachromats, who possess a fourth type of cone, who actually see color differently as a result of that biological difference.  And then there are those we call “color blind” who lack one of the three types that most of us have.  So what you see as the rainbow varies, depending on whether you have two, three, or four types of cones in your retinas.  There are apparently numerous other differences in how the eyes of different individuals perceive the same set of light waves as “color,” some studies even suggesting that, in the same individual, color sensation may be affected by mood.  So the rainbow you see on a happy day may be different from what you’d see if you were sad; and it may certainly be different from the rainbow your neighbor would perceive, even if, somehow, you were occupying precisely the same point in space at the same point in time – even if the same light waves were hitting both sets of eyes at once.

Back in the day, we might have said that most of us perceive the rainbow as it really is – those unfortunate souls we call “color-blind” don’t see things “correctly.”  Nowadays, we have to deal with the tetrachromats. If they see more color variation than we do, is it in fact we who are “color blind”?

Even if we consider only the “typical” human being on a “typical” day, we are all only capable of perceiving “visible” light.   We think of the word “visible” as meaning “capable of being seen.”  But what we really mean is not the capacity to be seen by anyone or by anything – we really mean the capacity to be seen by most human beings. Some snakes can see infrared wavelengths which we cannot.    To quote Dawkins again, “There is nothing special about the narrow band of wavelengths that we call light, apart from the fact that we can see it. For insects, visible light is shifted bodily along the spectrum. Ultraviolet is for them a visible colour (‘bee purple’), and they are blind to red (which they might call ‘infra yellow’).”

Goldfish can see the ultraviolet light that we cannot.  Most birds are tetrachromats.  In other words, we humans have appropriated to ourselves the notion of “visible light” by defining it in terms of our own biological capacity to “see” (or not), when in fact, there is far more out there which other species can see, but we cannot.  Imagine how confused we might be if, like Superman, we had “x-ray vision” that mixed our perception of “visible light” with images, not of fully clothed neighbors, but of their skeletons as well?  Imagine how much larger our brains would have to be if, instead of there being just tetrachromats among us, we all had a thousand types of cones in our retinas, and we all had the resulting tons of additional information to process.

In my view, we’d do well to reflect on the fact that we’ve been engineered — or have evolved, or whatever — to have limited sight — a capacity to see only the tiniest part of what is “real.”  If what we “see” is different from what snakes, insects, birds or goldfish see, which vision is the “correct” one?  And if the rainbow I see is different than the one you see, can either of us be certain we’re right, or that the other is wrong?

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Seeds of the Idea

While “We May Be Wrong” is new, the attitude it embodies has been taking shape for some time.

One of the first indications of it came back in the 1990’s, when I was still a full participant in the workday world of work.  I’d noticed there were people where I worked who (for reasons mysterious to me) were apologetic when they disagreed with me.  Was I being too strong-willed?  Was I doing something that discouraged disagreement?  As I reflected on that question, I decided there was a need to let my co-workers know how healthy I thought fair-minded, open-minded disagreement was.  I thought about what I wanted to say, and within a few days, I’d created two signs which I displayed prominently in my office.  You couldn’t walk through the door without noticing them.

The first of them read like this:

Agree with me once, and I’ll like you.          

Agree with me all the time, and I’ll think you’re a fool.

Convince me I’m wrong, and I’ll be in your debt forever.

I thought it captured the sentiment I wanted to express well.  If you surround yourself with sycophants and people who think just like you do, how will you ever learn anything from anybody?

Just to be sure people understood where I was coming from, for the rest of the time I inhabited that office, I pointed the sign out to anyone I felt might be reluctant to tell me things I didn’t want to hear.

Meanwhile, as an additional reminder, both to myself and to others, I displayed a second sign near the first one:

                        Never be afraid to question your convictions.                               The Truth is too important ever to abandon the search for it.

That one was a little trickier, I think.  It may represent a paradox of sorts. It capitalizes the word “Truth” in the fashion of those who believe that, in answer to any question, there is an absolute “Truth,” a single answer that cannot, and should not, be questioned.  My fear, for those who see the world this way, is that once they’ve identified this Absolute Truth (or think they have), their job becomes one of adhering to it, come what may, fighting against any seed of doubt that might creep in.  Shunning those seeds of doubt may lead to avoiding those who would encourage their taking hold, and avoiding those people may lead to surrounding oneself with those who are like-minded.  Before you know it, the world is divided into camps of like-minded people, both camps convinced they are right, when the only sure thing (from my perspective) is that they’ll be in hopeless conflict with each other, a state that inevitably seems to lead to violence and war.

I once engaged in a debate over whether Absolute Truth exists or not.  While I took the position it did not, I didn’t feel sure of myself.  (The purpose of debate, as I see it, should be to test propositions, in order to learn — not to convince your opponent that you’re right, and he or she is wrong.)  I ended up entirely unsure of whether Absolute Truth exists or not, and to this day, I’m undecided on that question.  But as time progressed, I adopted a fairly strong belief as to a closely related question: assuming that Absolute Truth does exist, is the human mind capable of knowing when they’ve come across it?  On that question, I confess to have developed a strong opinion.  Not a certainty, mind you, but a very strong opinion. And I came down on the negative side of that one.  Even if there is such a thing as Absolute Truth, and even if the human mind is capable of seeing or comprehending that Absolute Truth , I concluded, the human mind is not capable of knowing when it has done so.

And so, on the sign I hung in my office all those years ago, I didn’t hesitate to capitalize the word “Truth” — because even if it exists, and even if we’ve already somehow stumbled upon it, we can’t be certain that we have — so the Truth is too important to abandon the search for it.

More in future blogs on what science and reason suggest about the limits of human understanding.

Joe

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Every Day Awareness

I’ve had some pretty grandiose ideas for this blog.  I could examine the issue of wrongness from the point of view of history, of psychology, of religion, and more.  I’ve had ideas for blogging on so many aspects of wrongness.  So I’ve been struggling with the decision: just where should this blog about wrongness begin?

Then something happened on Friday.  It was one of those moments when the nature of Wrongness spoke to me from the simplest of places — from the ordinary.  The everyday.  It was the type of thing that seems so inconsequential, so obvious, we take it for granted.  And that, I decided was why my first blog had to be about the decidedly not grandiose thing that happened on Friday.

My friend Tony and I were playing golf.   From the tee stand, we watched my ball sail up the right side of the fairway and land twenty or thirty yards short of the sand trap there, near the cart path.   Tony and I agreed that my ball had landed a good distance short of the trap.  A moment later, we watched Tony’s ball sail in the same direction as mine, but further; it landed twenty or thirty yards ahead of mine, just a few feet from the sand trap.  So close, in fact, that we discussed whether or not his ball had rolled into the trap, or had managed to stop just a foot or two short of it.    We then got into the cart to drive to our balls, to hit our second shots.  As we approached, reaching a ball that lay thirty yards short of the trap, Tony (who was driving the cart) let me out, saying, “Well, there’s your ball; hit yours while I go ahead to look for mine.”

What we both believed we would see — my ball, in that exact location — we did see.   (It’s what the psychologists call confirmation bias.)  Tony’s statement that the ball was mine confirmed my understanding that the ball in question was mine — an understanding I’d reached when I first saw it there, twenty or thirty yards from the sand trap, close to the cart path.  Watching him go off in search of his own ball further confirmed what was already clear to me.  By this point, there was no doubt in my mind that the ball in question was mine.  In fact, there had never been doubt.  And because there was no doubt, I didn’t consciously ask myself the question, “Is the ball mine?”  Rather, I failed to consider the possibility at all.  I failed to examine the ball to be sure it was mine, because, to use the familiar expression, I just “took it for granted.”  I didn’t even think about it.  I just hit it.

When we discovered (later) that I had hit Tony’s ball by mistake, rather than hitting my own, I accepted the appropriate two-stroke penalty for my mistake.  But let me ask: did I make one mistake, or two?  Arguably, I made two: the first was to interpret what I had seen and heard as indications that the ball in question was mine.  But the second – and potentially the more serious of the two mistakes – was that I failed to do what golfers are supposed to do, and what I usually do: check to make sure that the ball in question was mine.  Check that it was my brand, and that it had my personal mark on it, before I hit it.

There are likely lots of explanations for the first error, but what about explanations for the second?  Why did I fail to check the ball, to make sure it was mine?  Why did I “take it for granted”?

After reflecting for a moment on what had happened, I summed up my view of the situation for Tony.   “The more ‘obviously correct’ something is,” I said, “the less we are prone to question it; the more easily we are to accept it; and the easier, therefore, it is for us to be wrong.”  That, I have come to believe, is a fundamental principle of human cognition, and one of the most fundamental aspects of human error.    It’s when something is “obviously true” — so obvious, in fact, that we fail to question it — that it sometimes proves to be the biggest untruth of all.

Anyway, that’s the sort of experience I’ve encountered day after day, week after week, in the routine business of my life.  The more “obviously true” something is, the greater the chance we’ll be blind to the possibility it’s not.  The earth is obviously flat, right?  The sun rises in the morning, right?  Up is up, and down is down — right?  Throughout history, mankind has looked its most foolish when there’s been massive agreement about something which — later –appears ridiculous.

The experience of wrongness is something I encounter constantly in my reading about the history of mankind.  It is something I encounter constantly when I read books on cognitive psychology.  (Science tells us we’re prone to make errors a large percentage of the time, and for good reason: our species could not have survived if we had had to be certain of everything before we decided what to do.)  The human tendency toward error is something many (most?) religious and philosophical schools of thought emphasize.  It is something I can’t help but feel when I look up into the heavens at night, and see the immensity of things vaster and more powerful than myself.   Once I began to consider the prevalence of human error, I started to see it everywhere.  Confirmation bias, again? Maybe so.  It’s hard to tell.

And yet, if I watch TV, or read a magazine, or walk into a bookstore, or browse the web, I don’t see reminders of our extraordinary human capacity for wrongness.  On the contrary, I see accolades to the great achievements of the human race.   I see billboards, sound-bytes, self-help gurus, advertisements and mass media blaring out messages like,  “Have the courage of your convictions!”  and “Be willing to stand up and fight for what you believe in!”  We preach this message to our children so strongly it sometimes seems to me we’re saying that unless they’re ready to take the streets to fight for what they think is right, they are somehow not being good Americans.  We’re told that we human beings are the pinnacle of evolution, at the top of the heap of all creatures, just below God and the angels.  Stephen Hawking declares how lucky he feels that he was born at a time when science is on the verge of discovering “The Theory of Everything.”  Fair enough, I say to all of that — and possibly true — but how many times have we heard someone on a soapbox begin a sentence with, “Let there be no doubt…”  Best I can tell, most people feel quite certain about almost everything they believe.

We’re trained, meanwhile, from an age at which most children are incapable of understanding what an “oath” is, to place our hands over our hearts and swear such an oath, pledging “allegiance” to our country.   I wonder what we’re doing.  Does it really make sense to require a six year old to  swear allegiance to a particular system of government, a particular concept of nationhood, a particular nation?  If we call it “beginning to acculturate the young,” it seems fine; but what if we call it brainwashing?

I look around me, in the schools, and in the media, and I see certainty, conviction and allegiance held up as high virtues — and I wonder how much of it is right, and how much of it just may be wrong.  The world many cherish seems different from the one I’ve encountered.  In my world, our representative government seems as capable of error as we, the represented, are.  In my world, our species seems as capable of error as we, its individual organisms, are.  Everyone I know claims to be”open minded,” but I wonder how many of their friends would agree?  And how many of their enemies?  Indeed, I wonder, what does it even mean to be “open-minded”?

More later, my friends.  Welcome to “We May Be Wrong.”

— Joe

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I think we’re up and running!

Hello, friends.

I’ve spent the last several days in WordPress, trying to get a feel for how to build a basic website.  I think I may have finally settled on an appropriate WordPress “theme.”  Once I did that, day before yesterday, other aspects of the site seem to be falling into place more easily.

So — knock on wood — I think I may be ready to start inviting you to check out the website, and I may even be ready to start posting real (rather than test) materials.  I imagine it will be some time before I have the ability to start adding extra features and plugins.  But at least I think that the currrent content — basic as it is — seems to be working properly, and seems to be worth keeping.  So, hopefully, instead of scrapping and starting from scratch every few hours, I can actually start to build upon what’s here now.

And THAT, my friends, is a very good feeling!

-Joe

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