Monday, June 19, 2017

Theseus

If the earth is 4.5 billion years old, our planet has rotated on its axis approximately one and a half trillion consecutive times so far. Does that make tomorrow's rotation a given? No. If every person you’ve ever met has exactly ten fingers, can you make the conclusion that every person, ever, has exactly ten fingers? No. In both of those scenarios, a clear pattern is apparent.

Circa 1740, David Hume came up with the disturbing philosophical problem of Induction. It states that the past doesn't necessarily predict the future and assuming that it does is based on faith rather than rationality; pretty deep stuff from someone who spent a good stretch of his adult life employed as a librarian. Put a different way, believing in patterns is an exercise in piety. Most people naturally take this into account. We notice patterns and apply them until they don’t work anymore. Patterns are useful for efficiency. It's perfectly reasonable to use apparent patterns to develop systems, in fact, it's the most reasonable thing one could do.



Skepticism as a discipline represents an even broader application of uncertainty. Not only does the past not necessarily predict the future, but we should even question what we feel and sense. Question everything. The soul of a skeptic bears much resemblance to the kid in the back of the classroom, raising his hand to argue every small point, the kid that produces consternation from the presenter and eyerolls from everyone else. This youthful fervor is embodied by the turtleneck-clad Carl Sagan. Sagan was certainly intelligent and trained as a scientist, however, he was preoccupied with refuting what others believed, providing the other side of the argument, under the self-righteous guise of promoting critical thinking. This led him to the realm of pseudoscience and UFOs.

Rather than being a shining beacon of upright epistemology, Sagan was a skeptic in the modern sense of the word, which has been unhinged from its original meaning. The modern skeptic community is wacky and Sagan’s presence in it perfectly underscores how little scientific credibility it has. But essentially the community is based around providing counterpoints to mainstream thinking, whatever mainstream happens to be.

Providing counterpoints has it’s value, but you end up being a leech. It amounts to being the reign holding the horse back, as well as the rain on a parade. Rather than acting with creativity and originality, you are the critic. It’s much nobler to try to find the truth for yourself. To use skepticism as a tool to move forward wisely, rather than trying to pull everyone backwards.

A more noble skeptic would look like Theseus. Not the mythical Greek king, but rather the maze solving mouse invented by information theory pioneer Claude Shannon in the early 50's. Shannon created a dinner table-size maze made out of movable partitions and he would drop the robotic mouse in a random location in the middle of the maze. The mouse would proceed to bump against a wall, reverse, turn 90 degrees, and try again, finding all the ways to not solve the maze en route to finding the correct one. Through much trial and error, the mouse finally finds the cheese.

On that first maze run, the mouse is a skeptic in the truest, most radical sense of the word. The mouse is assuming nothing because it knows nothing. It is given an unknown situation and solving it through brute force and blunt force head trauma. Morbidly beautiful. How many walls does it collide with? More than it would care to count, I would imagine. It ends up hitting the same wall many times because it's not absolutely positive that it is the same wall. On and on. Yet Theseus still emerges victorious, battered and bloody, with the cheese.

That was the first maze run. Shannon actually equipped Theseus with a memory and the ability to fill it. In that sense, Shannon actually made Theseus a lot like us. So on it's second time through the same maze it solved the problem faster and with less trial and error. Soon it can solve the maze without hitting a wall once, because it remembers where all the walls are. But solving the maze faster is predicated on the maze itself remaining static. When the walls are shifted, the trial and error process must begin anew and new bruises must be earned.

To be clear, Theseus was a machine. Machines feel no sentimentality, no pain. Machines have no hunches and they make no assumptions unless we tell them to. They are skeptical because it's all they can do. In this we have to make the distinction between not knowing something and willingly refusing to believe something obvious. Theseus did not know the way on the first maze run, but it did the second time.

The truth is we know nothing. It’s depressing but true. All we have are patterns that are extremely reliable. We are all strangers exploring this universe for the first time. Every once in a while, we hear something or read something that produces a tingling sensation, a resonant ring of truth. That can’t be discounted. I consider myself a skeptic, though certainly not in the Sagan-sense. I have my doubts about every single thing I have ever believed or experienced or expect, because that is the only rational position. Along with that, I let myself believe things. Some of those things might very well be wrong. But a measure of belief is necessary to be a human rather than a machine. I also have no problem with slamming into walls just to make sure they are there. If you don’t do a bit of slamming, are you really sure of anything? Giving too much credibility to what someone has told you will blind you, and you will miss great truth. Giving no credibility to what you’ve been told is incredibly stupid. And you will end up with permanent facial fractures.

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