Posts Tagged ‘truth’

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!.

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Why should I be rational?

June 23, 2014

Part I: Truth and logic

Trying to be rational is placing restrictions on oneself. If I don’t want to be rational, I can be sometimes rational and sometimes irrational :D. Like playing a game without observing its rules, not being rational is easier. So why should anyone try to be rational? One observation is: we are more peaceful when we are rational. This is just an observation, not an answer. Moreover, it could be that it is the other way round: we are rational when we are peaceful :P.

Being rational is a way of accepting the reality. Reality is anything that is either verified through senses, or deduced from another reality(that is verified through senses). A rational argument is a link connecting two realities. Reality is interconnected within, through logical deductions. In other words, the set of realities is closed under deductions. Therefore, no untrue statements can be deduced starting from a true statement. Also, starting from an untrue premises, some deductions will be untrue. Some of them might be visibly absurd, and this way, deduction can be used to identify untrue statements. Thus, logic is used to keep our self within reality.

Therefore, the question really is, why should I restrict myself to reality?. Is it possible to live totally in an imagination, by believing it is true?. If not, what is the role of imagination? Also, why do we feel more peaceful when rational?

To answer these questions, we need to understand the origin and nature of all surreal objects that we can think of. I have broken my thoughts on this in to two other posts, due to its length :D.

Part -II >> , Part-III >>


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