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Sunday, May 06, 2018

On chasing hats and the reality of the world

We may be programmed to think there are limits to what can, in principle, be understood.

I 've always found that whenever somebody starts out sounding perfectly reasonable and then, a few paragraphs in, starts quoting the Bible and talking about God, the effect is jarring, as if in the middle of a science documentary on string theory Michio Kaku stopped talking about flux compactification and started singing Somewhere, Over the Rainbow.

I'm not anti-religion, and I've often quoted the Bible myself—even, on many occasions, without making fun of it—but it's not clear to me why religious people would consider that a quote from an ancient text, no matter how respected, to be convincing.

It's one of the basic principles of writing: don't tell 'em, show 'em. The editors of Uncyclopedia, a parody of some online encyclopedia, felt compelled to write a bunch of serious articles telling its writers how to be funny and not stupid. It is apparent that there may be a subtle distinction between these two, but it's an important principle. The idea is that if you want to convince the reader that person xyz is stupid, the one thing you must never say is “person xyz is stupid.” If you do, the editors say, your article has failed.

Circular reflections
Circular reflections

Admittedly it's not easy. I'm reading Sheldon Wolin's Democracy Inc. at the moment, and although there may be some good stuff further on, so far I'm having trouble imagining myself composing a sentence about this book that does not include the word “moonbat.”

The blame for this lies with our brain. Perhaps it's the brain's natural defense against being told what to do. Or maybe it's like explaining a joke: stating your conclusion outright dispels the myth, much as when an actor breaks through the fourth wall and addresses the audience. Or maybe it's just that when you use another writer to justify your position the reader asks whether, perhaps, he ought not to be reading that other guy instead.

The editors say it alienates the reader, much as if I were to say to someone “You're a lunatic!” Those are the sentiments for which Twitter was invented, and it's why Twitter is so valuable: it lets those who have no concept of tact have a place that the rest of us can ignore.

There's also a line of thought that says to discover new stuff you have to ignore the old stuff. We do this a lot in science: if I said that neuroinflammation might be caused by macrophages infiltrating across the blood-brain barrier (not that I would ever say such a horrendously implausible thing), this is what I'd be doing. Ignoring dogma frees up space in your brain to figure out alternative solutions. The idea that stomach ulcers were not caused by stress, but by Helicobacter pylori, is a good example.

The great Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton knew that principle well. In his essay On Running After One's Hat, the real subject was neither his hat nor running; it was the idea that phenomena in the natural world, like floods and wind, are annoying only by convention. He's trying to show us that there are things in the real world that don't suck. By doing so, he convinces us that there is, indeed, such a thing as the real world.

Twitterers would just propose a solution: “Chesterton could have saved 1,332 words with the judicious application of cyanoacrylate adhesive. Sad!” but that would be missing the point. It's not so much that truth is hiding around the corner, just out of reach; it's more like the explanations we're invested in prevent us from seeing it. That is their purpose: to stop us from wondering what's really going on so we can get on with the task of retrieving our hats.

Nick Bostrom once suggested that it's likely that we're living in a computer simulation. But why must we assume there is a computer? It's impossible for us to know for sure what's really going on in the world. Some philosophers like Thomas Nagel claim there are limits to what can, even in principle, be understood. The true nature of reality could be anything. If we could discover it, would we, for instance, suddenly wake up to find that we're not on Earth after all, but living a horrific existence floating in a vast empty space, alone for eternity?

There's no chance of that: if it were true, the probability is 1.0 that that we'd be programmed never to discover it. Therefore, using Bostrom's reasoning, it must be true. Or at least, it cannot be proven false.

We want to believe the world is real, and we cling to that fiction, but we live in a house of mirrors which may or may not really exist. Even if it does exist, the likelihood is that smashing the mirrors would only reveal more mirrors behind them.

may 06 2018, 3:26 am

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