Friday, November 17, 2017

1439: Trenestheses

You have heard it said (especially in courtrooms) that some things must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But did you ever wonder why the word reasonable was so necessary in that formula? The answer, I think, is that there are two kinds of proof –proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and proof beyond a possible doubt; and the latter type of proof does not finally exist. We can prove nothing, you see, beyond a possible doubt. Not even the previous sentence! Even if a defendant is caught with blood on his hands (and his clothing shows a hundred DNA matches), there is still a possibility that he was elaborately framed. When a jury decides that he is guilty, then, they are not saying that elaborate frame-jobs are impossible. I think they are saying that, in this particular instance, they have little reason to believe in one.

The idea goes beyond courtrooms. Just as a guilty defendant might cook up a story about how he was elaborately framed, I might cook up a story about how Coca-Cola isn’t really a liquid. No matter how much evidence you chucked at me, you could never disprove my claim beyond a possible doubt; I could, after all, make up a whole ocean of schlock involving hyperspace dimensions and the varying laws of physics. You wouldn’t need to disprove my schlock in order to disbelieve it – you could merely decide that my evidence was moronic. You see, then, that evidence is not the same thing as proof. I have evidence that the moon is made of cheese – namely, what I have read in children’s books. I have evidence, too, that the moon is made of rock – namely, what I have read in NASA books. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that one claim is evidence and that the other is not; they are both evidence. But for most people, one is decidedly more convincing than the other.

Picture, then, the mathematical asymptote: the graph in which a line draws infinitely nearer to an axis, but never quite reaches it. That, in my opinion, is what knowledge is like. Just as the line never quite touches the axis, no one can quite prove anything at all. Between the line and the axis, there is always a gulf, and the gulf is always bridged by a combination of evidence and faith. Exempli gratia:

1. When you believe that Coca-Cola is a liquid, you bridge the gap with several metric tons of evidence, and a microscopic fraction of a teaspoon of faith.
2. When you believe that you will not be killed on your way to work tomorrow, you bridge the gap with a sizeable hill of evidence, and a small pocket-full of faith.
3. When you believe that Team A will defeat Team B in the Super Bowl (or World Cup), you bridge the gap with a fair bit of evidence, but still with a rather large portion of faith.
4. If you believe that Richard Gere is secretly an ambassador to Mars, you bridge the gap with very little evidence, and with a large tank-full of faith.

In turn, I think that everyone in the universe has beliefs. When it comes to the questions which are farther from the graphical axis – who should I vote for? what happens when we die? what constitutes good and evil? – I think there are two types of believing persons in the world: those who say ‘Wasn’t I lucky to be born with the correct belief!’ and those who catch themselves, and ask, ‘But aren’t the wrong ones thinking the exact same thing?’ And among those who would ask this unnerving question, there are two salient responses.

Door Number One
It is unpleasant to imagine that a deep conviction – whether it’s yours, or belongs to someone across the world – might actually be plum wrong. Door Number One, then, attempts to reconcile this dissonance by believing in relativity and subjectivity. They mutter to themselves that there is no objective truth – and that if Person A believes that pumpkins grow on trees while Person B doesn’t, then nobody loses; they both get to be right. Besides saying a word or two on whether or not pumpkins grow on trees, I think that the easiest way to debunk Door Number One is to realise how self-refuting it is. Anyone who would mutter to themselves, ‘There is no objective truth,’ obviously believes in at least one – namely, the one they just muttered. Door Number One, then, has never interested me.

Door Number Two
Despite how strange it is to realise that a deep conviction might be wrong, there is another way to soften the sting. That is to coat your personal conviction – what you believe is objectively correct – in a layer of respect for those who oppose it. You needn’t believe that they, too, are correct (or else you are still tempted by Door Number One), but you can at least honor that they, too, are living a meaningful journey, and are trying to bridge all the gulfs on their asymptote. Exempli gratia:

Have you ever seen a sick child – for instance, a young cancer patient – partake in the opening ceremony of a sporting event? In such instances (which have become rather common), the child will often wear their favorite player’s jersey, and will express his or her support for the home team. Only a colossal nincompoop would say to themselves, ‘Well then, anyone who doesn’t root for the home team is a monster!’ – since, after all, it wouldn’t be hard to find a cancer patient who was rooting for the opposite team, now would it? An even bigger idiot would say, ‘That kid is rooting for a team I hate, so his cancer isn’t real and I don’t care about him!’ It is quite obvious (at least, to most people) why these statements sound so darned idiotic: to root for a team, after all, is not to show contempt for the lives of others. Do you see, then, that judgment is not the same thing as disrespect? That it’s possible to disagree with a larger premise without showing contempt for someone’s concerns? As much as the idiots from my analogy may seem like dumb caricatures, they actually exist in political and ideological discussions – ‘the person in this political commercial is hurt and crying, so anyone who votes for (x) is a monster,’ or ‘the crying person told me to vote for (x), and I hate (x), so I can make fun of the crying person for being dumb and misguided.’ Do you see how foolish these sentiments are? Can you see, in turn, how judgment and respect don’t need to be in competition?

Some will never see; and the terrible effect, in my opinion, is that respect is treated as a competitive advantage. It’s suddenly difficult to admit that everyone needs respect – if, after all, we have to respect things which are unfamiliar, or things which are new, or things which are strange and unconventional, or even discomforting, and things which require us to examine ourselves, or also (on the other hand) things which scholars have never written about, which warrant no references in medical journals, and which hold no particular water in an audience of doctors, nor therapists, nor psychologists, nor sociologists, and which do not involve Death nor trauma (as my previous blog entry mentioned) – ‘if I must respect any of those,’ we ask ourselves. ‘What will be left for me?’ When really, the idea of respect as a limited resource – the last cookie on the plate, which only one person will ever get – is, in my opinion, total schlock. Once we admit that everyone possesses a story (and that each of them commands a helping of respect), we realise that the limitation of the resource existed only in our imaginations.

This riddle, I think, is what’s behind the so-called snowflake phenomenon. There is nothing (to my mind) problematic with the notion of personal uniqueness, nor with the expectation of gracious treatment; the illness, as it accords with my own perspective, is that everyone is scrambling to prove it. Please think of a restaurant. Is it typical to barge into a restaurant and explain passionately to the waiters how you possess a fully functional digestive system? No; by eschewing such a time-wasting procedure, in fact, you award yourself the opportunity to eat. Am I crazy to think that our interpersonal lives ought to be the same? That a mythical competition is what constricts us? Once you are unique by virtue of common knowledge (and not by virtue of a legal case to be argued before Judge Judy), I think you’ll become a little more selfless: a little more interested in eating, and not talking about eating – interested in seeing others and their strange snow-crystals, not your own.

Personality quizzes are symptomatic of the conflict, aren’t they? They’re another attempt, I think, to hang Christmas lights on one’s own inimitable qualities (and they are only one symptom, the rest of which couldn’t be stuffed into a dozen blog entries). Nevertheless I might conclude by visiting that age-old personality quiz staple, that question I intended to answer before falling into this rabbit-hole:

Are you a Big-Picture person? Or are you detail-oriented?

Were I trying to answer the question very quickly (and without being misleading), I would say that I am knee-deep in the detail-oriented marshes. If I could answer the question using a fuller cup of precision and honesty, however, I might say that I am detail-oriented on account of being a Big-Picture person. Have you ever seen a novel broken into bite-sized chapters, each chapter with a simple and elegant title? I adore that sort of organization. Or what about the conventional Dramatis Personae device? Where a stage-play provides a full list of characters beforehand, and in turn, breaks a boat-load of drama into an organized little skeleton? I get such a kick out of that. To see large things cut up into small things is, for whatever reason, a kind of literary ecstasy for me.

My response to conflicts and tragedies seems to follow the same pattern. When people are arguing about something great and terrible – or else grieving about some horrible thing on their hearts – I take comfort by visiting the small, indisputable details. I’ve set my alarm for 9:00 in the morning, right? Yes. Or, Greene is presently signed with the Billings Mustangs, right? Yes. Little details like that.

I don’t know. Maybe those kinds of details are missing from conflict. Maybe that’s why they feel so satisfying.

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