Posts Tagged ‘belief’

Truth and trust

September 23, 2017

“Guess what, I have 101325 hair strands in my head” said a friend when I was in elementary school. I looked at him in disbelief and he said “look, if you don’t believe me, count it for yourself” :D. I said I trust him and actually, I still believe he has 101325 hair strands :D. That was a joke. Now let’s get to some serious people who I very much trust and serious claims which I believe in. I am a physicist and almost all of what I know in physics are beliefs, supported by my trust for other physicists of the present and the past. I believe that LIGO observed gravitational waves — I wasn’t a witness when the data was taken, nor did I verify each element of their technical setup. In fact, I don’t even have the technical knowledge to go in and verify an entire setup that big. Indeed, even someone who does would still take an impractical amount of time. The different parts of the LIGO team, sure trust each other. What if, one of the thousand computers they use was programmed to putout any desired data? This of course, is a conspiracy theory, trying to survive upon a Russel’s teapot argument. But nonetheless, the burden of verification, so to speak, is so large that one just has to give up on the verification.  I haven’t verified Young’s double slit experiment, Michelson Morley experiment, etc etc. Even if I did, some of these experiments are too complicated — involve too many components that I didn’t build myself (or watched them built), and therefore trusting another human being is inevitable.  These experiments were done by physicists in the past. I trust them. I believe that they did it. I will argue soon, that these are not “silly” concerns or ones that only promote conspiracy theorists.

Can’t I avoid basing my truth upon trust?. Can’t I do an ab initio verification of every claim that is important to me? Actually I can. Take for example, the Pythagoras theorem. I know a few proofs, and I can decide the validity of these proofs without trusting another human being. More generally, if I come across any mathematical claim, I can, in many cases do an independent examination and decide for myself whether it is true or not. That is the nature of mathematics, the one that differs from experimental sciences. However, mathematicians do base their beliefs on trust, when there is no time to verify each and every claim.  Nevertheless, if necessary, it is not an impossible deal to do an ab initio verification of mathematical claims.

In contrast, in experimental sciences, every generation of scientists will lose their entire life to rediscovering what was already known, if they decide to base their knowledge upon pure evidence and not trust. This is an inevitable consequence of the burden of verification.  So our notion of truth about the physical world appears to be linked to trust between people at a very fundamental level. There is one issue even with mathematical claims; non-mathematicians are mostly untrained to decide the validity or invalidity of a mathematical proof. In fact, even a silly trick proving 1=2 can be hard for a non-mathematician to invalidate. Simply believing that there is something wrong just because the end result is outrageous is not a logical invalidation!. The silly tricks used to prove 1=2 can also be used to prove some less-obviously-wrong, but nevertheless wrong statements and a vast majority of the people would fall for it, if they didn’t trust a real mathematician. This holds for statements regarding anything, including those that I am no expert at. Therefore, contrary to what is apparent, I would become incredibly gullible, if I were to decide the validity of everything I am told, on my own without trusting anyone.

If, someone makes an extraordinary claim (like Einstein was somehow wrong) and bears the burden of proof by providing a 3000 page document, how would I bear the burden of verification? It is easy to disregard a claim and call it cranky simply because it defies something widely accepted, but that is not justifiable by any principle — after all, a popular knowledge isn’t necessary correct. What if the 3000 page document consists of very well framed prolific arguments, but there is a tiny tiny flaw in page 2598 which makes the whole argument collapse?  I have to read through carefully to find such a flaw. Moreover, the overall burden of verification, as I argued before is impossible for one man to bear. So the natural way out is to trust someone who deals with the concerned subject for a living — an astrophysicist, if the claim is astrophysical and a Biologist if the claim is biological etc. This is popularly known as accepting the ‘scientific consensus‘. Not to forget, such a consensus is not fool proof — neither in principle, nor in practice.   In principle, it is very much an act of trusting someone. In practice, the moment a scientific consensus is forming public opinion, political forces will attempt to tamper with it. One can never be sure which one is closer to the truth; is it the existing consensus, or is it an opposition to it?

Political tampering of scientific consensus is perhaps as old as civilizations, science and politics. It opens a set of interesting questions —  how does an individual decide who to trust? how does someone become trustworthy? and how does a society design itself so that the majority always trust the most trustworthy? Here I am not concerned with them; rather, I want to promote these questions up to the philosophical one arising from the inevitable reliance of truth on trust :

Is truth mostly inaccessible to an individual minus the society?

The problem with the word trust is, it requires more than one person. If I was the only one living on this planet, no one else to ask anything, no one to trust, what would “truth” look like? Based on the understanding that truth is only that which I have verified, the above considerations imply that the volume of my truth is limited. There is a price I have to pay to know something is true — the burden of verification. Indeed, this volume of truth is so small that it is almost fair to say most of the truth is inaccessible to one individual minus the society.

One of the somewhat disappointing implications of this embedding of trust in truth is that the advise “don’t accept without questioning” is really, “rethink who you want to trust” 😀 — something much less cooler than the former, but nevertheless a good thing once in a while.  But as I indicated in the first paragraph, the biggest implication to me is the narrowing of the gap between knowledge and belief.

The truth accessible to the individual minus the society is different from the truth we know of — it is primitive and pure. It is pure because it doesn’t involve trust; it is that and only that, which I am sure of, even if I don’t trust anyone else. Of course, one can dissect the “I” further and ask, to what extent can I trust my own sense organs?, but that is a question for a separate blog post; one that addresses the self minus the sense, can be very interesting :D. Back to the truth of the individual minus the society. It is primitive because, its volume is limited by what can be verified by one person — that would include only elementary facts like “I am” etc. :D.

The truth that we know of is sophisticated but impure. It includes answers to very complex questions — ones about a distant galaxy, ones about the minute atoms, ones about the deep sea, all of which have an inherent trust involved because of which, I call it impure. That is not too bad, because, it is possible for such a truth to be actually very close to reality, in the case where everyone is honest.

I will end with a remark on the question mentioned before, of how does a society make sure that what its subjects believe as true are indeed close to the reality. To the least, we can classify the situation into three cases — first, everyone is honest, in which case, what people believe is indeed very close to reality. Second, many people are dishonest, but with different motives; so the resulting contradictions would spread mistrust and therefore decrease the volume of truth that people believe they know. Third, many people are dishonest, but with the same motive — perpetrating a specific myth. That’s the hardest situation because it is indistinguishable from the first case!.


The atheist debate

January 4, 2015

Debating the existence of God and the relevance of religion is the doorstep to understanding the role of imagination in reality. Imagination is a tool of dynamics of reality- Imagination, shaped by the past of reality, shapes the future of reality. It evolves reality in time.

To explain the above statement with an example, consider a chess game. The board, the pieces and the players are real. The game setup and rules are imaginary. In the imagination, the board is a war-field, each piece is a certain type of warrior, and so on. The future of reality, i.e,  the next move to be made by the players is entirely guided by this imagination.

The sense of loss or win is also determined by the imagination. Losing a pawn is a much smaller loss than losing the queen- although in reality, they are both just pieces of plastic or wood.

God is an imaginary entity. So are the rules of religion and the associated wins and losses, rights and wrongs. In what way does it impact the reality? What is the magnitude of this impact? Is it possible for a civilization to exist without religion?

A civilization without a religion is likely to collapse internally or remain primitive. We could have seen why is this true, if we had a chance to watch the formation of a civilization, and observe how they came up with God and religion.  We can do so, but such an experiment will take several thousands of years, and so, it better be a thought experiment. 😀

A thought experiment

Let us choose an inhabitable, but uninhabited island, far off from the rest of the world as the site of our experiment. Let us then initiate a civilization, with young children. For a few generations, we have to silently protect them, making sure that they survive safe. Later on, we can cut off all contacts with that island. A a few generations later, the people in the island will forget about us, and it will grow just like any natural civilization; no civilization remembers a time when they didn’t have a language of communication and a system of documentation. They will eventually find us, after they invent ships and start sailing, but this will take a very long time.

We can observe how the civilization develops, from a remote sensing satellite.  Of course, this will take several generations of observation in reality, and that is the reason why this is a thought experiment.

This setting can be used to analyze many things. Our question here is of relevance of religion and God: Will the civilization in the island necessarily develop a religion and a God?  Let us refer to our history. We know of a large number of civilizations that existed sometime in the past, somewhere in the world. How many of these didn’t have a god or a religion? Turns out, most of the known civilizations have a religion and god(s), with extremely sparse exceptions. Pirahã people is one such example. They don’t believe in any deity, but they do believe in spirits. However, they are not an independently grown civilization; they are a subtribe of a bigger tribe. So, this doesn’t really tell us how to evolve the civilization in our island without a religion.

Does this mean that no civilization can exist without religion and God? There are two possibilities: One, religion is a part of the growth of a civilization, or two, all those civilizations that didn’t develop a religion collapsed too soon to leave any footprints of their existence, and so we don’t know about them. Perhaps, they collapsed because of not having a religion.

For one thing, the civilization in our island should say something about death; something nice like, dead people become stars in the sky, or they become spirits or, they go to heaven/hell. Otherwise, the civilization will collapse internally. People are glued in to a society by an emotional attachment(relation, friends,, etc). This attachment also has a bad facet – it causes anguish, particularly over death, which is certain. If it is not dissipated, it can potentially crush the civilization. So, a strong civilization needs a strong attachment and a robust way of dissipating destructive emotions. Evidently, rituals associated with death and afterlife are a big chapter in every religion.

Moving ahead, the most prominent feature of a religion is, it creates God, as a protector of all :D. Is it really necessary to have an imaginary protector? Will the civilization in our island develop such an imaginary protector?. Well, if it doesn’t, it will never explore outside the island, and so, it will make a very slow progress in science!. Let us see why:

A civilization will attach value to life of a person(and many more things), not only that a person values his own life, but also, others value his life. Any prospect of loss of life will therefore induce an emotion called fear. It prevents the civilization from exploring too far away from their safe home. An imagination of a protector, can create a counter emotion to fear and therefore make it possible to explore. Knowing that this protector is not real does not alter anything!; Imagination can create real emotions.  One example where this method of evading fear is employed is, explorations in the ocean. Sailors are known to be superstitious, in order to evade the fear due to risks in their sailing. (Sailor’s superstitions. Why aren’t there similar superstitions with today’s astronauts? This has a simple answer  😀 ). Therefore, the people in our island may never find us, if they don’t imagine a protector!

Exploration is the key for scientific progress. Scientific progress is not a process carried out by scientists alone. It is carried out by the entire society. Scientists need a strong support from all sections of the society. As an example, let us consider the big revolution brought by Newton’s laws of motion(they partly caused the industrial revolution). What does it take for the civilization in our island to make this breakthrough?. It takes three things, in order of decreasing importance:

  1. A thorough documented knowledge of the objects in the sky. This is accumulated by a thousand years of night sky observers
  2.  A thorough knowledge of the surface of the earth, and how the sky looks when viewed from different locations on the earth. This is gathered by exploratory sailors.
  3.  A genius like Isaac Newton

The people in our island will never get to this without being able to explore. As paradoxical as it is, science has gained a  little from some superstitions too!. :P. 

So, the civilization in our island should have a method of dissipating destructive emotions, in particular, it should have something nice to say about death. And it should also have a protector(or a means to evade fear). Do these two complete a religion? I don’t think so. I have considered only those aspects that affect the stability and growth of the civilization. Religion also has another kind of value that is shared by the arts- music, dance, stories etc. In societies where religion is strong, it appears to influence the way people think(something I don’t understand). That is a subject of another blog post. I will conclude now by saying, man created God, and then God created man!. 

Conceiving and convincing

May 30, 2012

Imagine, we are given a task to fill up as many pages as possible on word, in a given time, with the letter ‘A’. One way is to copy ‘A’ into the clip board and keep pressing Ctrl V. This is the AP(Arithmetic Progression) way. There is another way; we can copy ‘A’ and keep pressing ctrl C, Ctrl A, ctrl V in sequence. This is the GP way. Mathematics tells us that although Ctrl V appears once in three buttons, the GP method is faster. This is not obvious for a common man at the first sight. And most of the public, are insensitive to logical arguments. Nevertheless, one can convince anyone of this fact, simply by demonstrating it.

The above is an example of what I call as an operationally testable statement. However there are statements which are not operationally testable. The man on the platform, says “the train is moving”; while, the man in the train says “the platform is moving”. Usually, a common man assumes that the man on the train is wrong; he knows the ‘truth’- the train is moving. The profound realisation is that, neither of them are wrong. But there is no way to demonstrate it! This concept of relative motion is operationally un-testable. So much so, that this un-testability was responsible for the Galileo affair. (besides religious concerns)

In fact, most of the statements with profound reasoning are operationally un-testable. For instance, the counter intuitive results of cantor, like the number of points on a side of a cube, the number of points on a face and the number of points inside its volume, are all equal; it is impossible to trisect an angle using a straight edge and a compass. A common man certainly has problems with accepting it. And unfortunately, there is no operational way to convince him of this fact; i.e, a person who assumes the contrary will not be punished for being wrong. 😀 Hence it is apparent that there is no way to convince the public of these facts.

To digress a bit, I often say utilising an object is to do something with it, which cannot be done without using it :D. By that token, reasoning should be used to conceive (currently)un-testable facts. Because, operationally testable facts can be conceived even without reasoning. Hence, real utilisation of reasoning is to conceive operationally un-testable facts.

How do I convince a common man of such facts? In the first place, should one care to convince someone who is not sensitive to logic? To answer these questions, I shall consider examples from the history where the task of convincing the public has been accomplished.

The earth is not flat, but spherical, and further, it is not at rest, it is rotating and revolving. These two are among the most profound, but operationally un testable realisations. However, they are widely accepted by the public!. Let us examine how were the public convinced of these. Aristotle conceived that the earth is spherical. At that time this would have been counter intuitive and operationally un testable; So, he would have had a great trouble in convincing people about it. It is clear that he did care about convincing people about it; why else would he list down the common fallacies in logic committed by people 😀 (see ‘Aristotle’s 13 fallacies’). And the way he did it, was to impose it as a belief. This is clear from how people believed everything that Aristotle said.

Most of the public today, believe that the earth is in a complicated motion. They just believe– they don’t really know the reasoning which led to this fact!. In fact, to really go through the reasoning, one has to understand relative motion. This was the major trouble with accepting Galileo’s arguments; he was asked to prove that the earth is moving (for which he gave a wrong argument :P). And it is apparent that most of the public don’t really appreciate relative motion. So, it is clear that they have been convinced of the heliocentric theory, just by imposing it as a belief. This, is not very different from religion!. Isn’t it unjustified for an intellectual to impose a belief?

Majority of people are insensitive to logical reasoning; ie, if the result of a logical reasoning is against their intuition or religious or any other concerns, they cease to accept it. Therefore, it is impossible to propagate the picture of moving earth, through reasoning. If it was not propagated as a belief, the public would have accepted a different picture of the earth, still as a belief!. Hence it is not unjustified, to propagate a belief, if it is necessary to convince them of these facts.

It is clear that whether or not a statement gets propagated as a belief among the public doesn’t depend on whether the statement is based on a sound reasoning or not!. It depends on the ability to impose a belief among the public, of the person who conceived it. This means, almost anything can be propagated as a belief!. That is a little disturbing :D. There ought to be a fundamental difference between conceiving a statement out of rigorous logical reasoning, and claiming without a strong logical background. I guess this difference is brought out in the confidence: the confidence attained by conceiving a fact through thorough reasoning is stronger. I guess(hope :P) this difference can be utilised to beat the propagation of unsupported claims.

Finally, I come to the question I postponed to the end. Is it necessary to care about convincing others? Again let’s ask (old)people :D.Usually, mathematicians don’t care about the public; after conceiving a result, they wouldn’t worry about convincing. Kepler, who went a long way ahead of Galileo, at the same time, didn’t care to convince everyone; that is why he doesn’t have an affair attached to his name, unlike Galileo :D. Apparently, he was able to go that far simply because he didn’t care about convincing people. It is clear that Galileo and Aristotle cared about convincing people. If none of the physicists and mathematicians care about convincing others, their next generation to be physicists and mathematicians will find it hard to see the facts amidst misconceptions. Avoiding this is the only possible motivation for a physicist/mathematician to get in to the job of convincing, as far as I can see right now. This post is the longest one so far, and has crossed 1K words 😀 and so I stop here 😀 😀

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