Archive for August, 2004

All is Superstition

Tuesday, August 10th, 2004

We like to think that science has provided us with descriptive and predictive tools. The world acts in specific, predictable ways. The more we discover the pattern of this predictable uniformity, the more “science” we have. Certainly, we can’t accurately determine the weather at next weekend’s picnic, but we can determine the time of sunrise tomorrow morning, that a particular pool of water will freeze at zero degrees Celsius, that the electron has a charge of minus one, and that every individual shall die.

From where do we derive these “certainties”? They are a product of Inductive Reasoning: we take a specific example, and use our knowledge of the way systems operate to place its behaviour in a more general context. We rely on Inductive Reasoning for every scientific advance and for every meaningful observation of the Universe. Is it, however, any more than a combination of memory and faith: memory of certain patterns in the past, and faith that these patterns will enact themselves again? Certainly, even a shallow thinker can demolish claims that the sun certainly will rise tomorrow: what if a comet smashes into the planet? No planet: no sunrise. What if some freak event in the sun’s core leads to its astonishing extinction? No sun: no sunrise. This is, indeed though, a shallow criticism of Inductive thought, as all it does is to find possible but improbable reasons why a prediction might not be fulfilled. The Inductive Reasoner will then object in turn, claiming that Induction only ever promises probabilistic results. It makes no absolute claims, but can talk about being “reasonably sure” about certain postulations, and even then, only with provisos. Such a proviso might include stating that comments about the certainty of the sun’s rising are to be predicated on there not being undetected comets or undiscovered instabilities in the sun’s core. We can’t find the truth, in other words, but we can make a damn good estimation of it.

For a deeper criticism of Induction, we need to determine the implications of any claim that it operates within a system of probability. Here, we get caught in a circular argument. If something is judged probabilistically, we determine whether it shall recur by fitting its machinations into our current understanding about the uniformity of the universe, and in our belief that certain events will only happen with certain regularity therein. Furthermore, we tacitly accept that nothing fundamental has changed in the Universe to invalidate any further predictions. We’re saying, therefore, that something has a certain probability because, firstly, we have evidence that it has been such in the past and, secondly, we have faith that it shall be such in the future. So, if we say that Induction allows us to find the truth to a certain degree of probability, we’re spinning in a loop – Inductive Reasoning works because.. we have faith in the Inductive Concept of probability which.. requires induction as a “proof”!

Your immediate reaction might be to jump to the Theory of Probability’s defence: in a closed set – for example, with the toss of a coin – surely it is senseless to doubt that getting “heads” in the fair flip of a properly balanced coin shall always be 0.5. Certainly, there’ll be localised pools of improbability (a run of heads or a run of tails) but, averaged out, the universe plays fair, and one should receive heads with a probability of 0.5.

But, again, what is the basis of this Probabilistic certainty? That a balanced small metal disc reacts in a certain way under a predictable gravity field. One knows the way gravity works. One knows the way coins react to being thrown. One can test this empirically, or simulate it. The long-run results are always the same. What room is there for doubt? The answer is: you are basing upon absolutely nothing other than faith your assumption that the universe shall retain its uniformity. Your brain is wired up to find patterns and to guard them jealously. But try to find a reasoned argument why gravity should continue acting the way it has thusfar. Why should the electron retain its charge of minus one? Who gave you that cast-iron guarantee? “Oh, but it has been for billions of years, it’s not going to change now!”. Really? Whence the confidence? One day, I’ll remind you, a Universe suddenly just popped into existence for no particularly discernible reason. At its birth, the rules we take for granted today were nowhere to be found. We might feel in our gut that the Universe is unlikely to change capriciously, but this is nothing more than faith-based hopefulness. We have no rational evidence for this belief. We can count on billions of observations, and millions of predictions, and the models we derive therefrom, but we can never know what tomorrow brings. Maybe gravity has a universal halflife, and is about to turn off. Who knows? Not you. Not anyone. Is it unlikely? You cannot meaningfully say one way or the other. Not until it has happened.

Despite that your mind and gut might suggest otherwise, the universe hasn’t made a pact or bargain with you. Anything can change, just like that, and no prediction is anything more than a hopeful psychological blanket. At the end of the tale of Noah, God promises in His display of the rainbow that He shall never again act in such a randomly destructive manner. The story’s yearning for some Absolute basis upon which to build future civilisations and the discoveries upon which they depend is palpable. “O, Universe”, it seems to cry, “you’ve had your fun – now stop flapping about and guarantee us a bit of stability”. Now, the scientific method and Induction act as our rainbow. But no God is going to make us any promises. We’re just a bunch of superstitious apes mistakenly assuming our little games of spot-the-pattern can give us a God’s eye view of totality. Chicken Little was right: the sky might, indeed, fall down, and nobody can meaningfully suggest otherwise. So, what is a rational soul to do? Seize the day, I suppose, and just enjoy the ride, as trite as it might seem.

The Joy of Palette

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2004

One reason to remain alive is to appreciate flavours; more significantly, to appreciate one’s ability to learn the point of new flavours. I’m sure you’ve had that experience of suddenly realising that a food you hated when a child suddenly becomes palatable. Food that once represented a veritable Myra Hindley to your juvenile tastebuds just decides one day to reveal itself as nothing more than a misunderstood aunt after all. Olives, blue cheeses and wine all represent such revelations in my case.

Olives came first. I remember being hungry one day, and finding little more than a bottle of the said salty fruits in the parental fridge. Rather than reject them, as I would have done previously with barely a conscious thought, some new maturity this time led me to take their insolent, beady glistening as a challenge. I don’t think I necessarily actively “liked” the first one; but I could no longer call it an enemy to my sensibilities. It was playing with me, teasing me with its odd, savoury, uncompromising adulty weirdness. My tongue wasn’t merely a submissive gimp in this little bit of role play – no, it took on the olive for all it was worth, decoding for the first time the aesthetic “meaning” behind the flavour. What once was little more than harsh white taste-noise suddenly revealed its grand purpose. For want of a better phrase – a far, far better phrase – the olive’s “flavour narrative” unfurled itself. “Ah! Gotcha!” And from that moment on, olives were understood, no longer “other”. My mouth, tongue, brain and stomach knew what to do with them, and I finished the whole bottle. I got their number.

A similar thing happened to a work colleague, Paul Smeddle. A group of we techies went to dinner after some server prodding. We happened to be in Nandos, the Portuguese/South African peri-peri chicken joint. I must demand that you buy a dish of olives, if you ever happen to pass. They are plump and pickled with pimento and garlic, and are amidst the least disappointing little dishes you’re likely to encounter. Paul’s palette was still, I’m afraid, Saul. It hadn’t travelled on its road to Damascus (a prominent olive producer, don’t you know), and so retained the common distrust of the fruits, coming out with the usual violent rejections thereof. Of course, we enlightened souls could not bear to be in the presence of one yet so unwise in the ways of the Savoury, and decided to lead him down a forceful epiphany. So, after the usual group-of-males cajoling, he tried one. He professed not to be impressed. No more was said on the matter. We had tried, and that’s what’s important, after all.

Some months later, I saw Paul take out his lunch in the office. This included a punnet of bright green olives. He gobbled them down, voraciously, with the rigour of the convert. “Yes, I have to admit”, he confessed, “that my taste at Nandos planted the seed of doubt, which bloomed into a full-grown reversal and eventual craving. I’m now addicted”. I hope you’ll agree that helping someone to appreciate something in the same aesthetic terms with which you had learned to appreciate it yourself represents a most joyous pinnacle of human empathy. You might forgive me, then, for some of my happy smugness in welcoming Paul to the fold.

More significant for me even than olives was my coming-to-terms with, and my eventual complete craving for strongly flavoured blue cheese. My young palette enjoyed the creamy sweetness of a cheese, with at most the tangy civility of a good Cheddar, or the crumbly tartness of a worthy Cheshire. But striate my curds with salty blue fungus and streak my whey with pungent green spores, and you’d have made yourself a nemesis in me. Then, one day, I suddenly liked them. No grand overture, fanfare or final cadenza prefigured this. Just like that, I realised that ‘pongy cheese” was good. Go figure. Smelly, blue, green, ripe or runny, I appreciated the point of what was previously perceived as just another noxious perversion, to be filed under poop and puke in the “avoid” lobe. Yuck became yum in a period of time short enough to alarm me. After all, if my dearly held aesthetic opinions could be thrown asunder in the smack of a lip, with years of passionate and proudly staunch revulsion now chucked aside like an old toy, suddenly devoid of the childhood meaning which gave it worth, what certainties could I rely upon? What else of me would dissolve?

The ancient Philosophers talked of the Ship of Theseus, as a way of discussing what might be meant by “identity”. In the tale, a ship, over time, begins to rot away. One plank replaced. The ship still retains its identity as the Ship of Theseus. Two, three are replaced further, still no problem. What happens when half the ship’s timbers have been replaced? And, finally, when no part of the “original” ship remains, in what way is it still “that” ship? In what sense, if any, is the ship still to be identified as the Ship of Theseus? As I continued to shed aesthetic opinions, God, accents, skin cells and memories, what part of the Ship of Nick (or Nicholas or Nicky as it would have then been, to make the point further) would have remained? Maybe this is why people cling on to their strange little dislikes and petty little habits. They provide some constancy of self, an identity we hope survives, sturdy against the buffeting of time and our mere mortality. But despite this all stolid intransigence, most of us just can’t help getting old enough for olives.