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Hmm. Network notwork. I'm sure I ought to use this as a unique… - Sally's Journal
January 23rd, 2006
12:39 pm

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Hmm. Network notwork. I'm sure I ought to use this as a unique opportunity to read some of that really dull thesis which is glowering at me in a guilt inducing way, but it's very hard to do it in an engaged way when I can't even look at my own data (Matlab is sulking because I don't have a license*) arnhem will now be tutting disapprovingly and starting to write comments about procrastination by construction of artificial critical paths, but I'm going to pretend I can't hear him ;-)

Instead I'm going to write about the stripes of understanding.



A lot of the time, when you start trying to answer a straightforward question, you find that the answer toggles the more and more information you get. For example, as the famous Scientists of History investigated the nature of light they saw it diffract and bend and behave in a generally wave like manner, and were able to feel vastly superior to the Scientists of History Further Away who just thought it rolled around the place like billiard balls. And then you get the Quantum Scientists** who looked at things even further and found light behaving in a way that could only be explained if it were a particle. One assumes this made them feel superior to the Scientists of History, but one doesn't assume it made them think the Scientists of History Further Away were really clever.

This isn't just a phenominom in Obscure Science. It crops up all over the place. Ring-a-ring-o-roses is the only other example that crosses my mind at the moment*** (Everyone knows that Ring-o-roses is Just A Nursery Rhyme. But the slightly better educated class of Everyone knows that it's actually all about the Plague. But the even more educated Everyones have written well researched arguments on why it probably hasn't come to us from the Plague at all, but is just a nursery rhyme) If you've ever sat in a pub quiz or an exam thinking "I know what the 'right' answer to this question will be, even though I know why there are deeper**** reasons why that's not true at all, so I'd better write that down to get the mark" or sat with a child who happens to have said something true but for completely wrong reasons, and you've had to patiently explain to them why their reasons are wrong, you've been working on the idea that where you are on the stripes of understanding may be more significant to answering a question than what the answer truely is.

Can you see it? Stand with me. It's beautiful. It stretches away further than my eye can see, a bold striped scarf running off to infinity that just begs us to walk along it*****. And look to the horizon. There, right on the edge of our understanding, the stripes are so far from us they begin to blur into one.

I don't think I've become a complete moral relativist. I am only human, and some things are dear and important to me. But it reminds me to beware of certaincy, for neither I nor anyone else is capable of walking all of the rainbow stripes and finding the golden pot of truth at the end.

And what is dear and beautiful to me? Who do I love? Not the people who by happy chance of the moment happen to be standing on a far distant stripe of the same colour. They may wish to parade under the same banner and label us into the same box, but if they cannot even begin to see how I think and where I have come from they have little in common with me. I love the people who have made the effort to walk up the stripes. The people who think, and reason, and study, and bite bullets, and see the other persons point of view, and debate, and once the dust has settled in their mind do it all again. What does it matter what colour the ground they stand on is? If they are Christian, Athiest, Whig, Tory, pro-Grammer schools, anti-War? Why, it only matters in as much as it gives us a talking point to start from, as we walk together in good company off to the horizon, where who knows what the truth will prove to be?

FOOTNOTES:

*My license lies over the Notwork.
My license lies far from this lab
For someone has stolen my Notwork
And I think they're a rascalous cad.

**You can never know where they are and what they're thinking at the same time. Which when they're you're supervisor is a bit of a bummer

*** Although I'm hoping my esteemed readership might come up with some more, as the blank state of my mind is slightly embaressing. There'll be a Prize for the best example :-)

****Or perhaps just more pedantic :-)

***** And that description in itself is only one stripe on the scarf, if we could walk up the stripes of understanding of the stripes of understanding we would see that it is a vast rainbow coloured patchwork quilt, with a thousand positions and opinions and misunderstandings and shades of grey and flashes of gold.

(16 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments
 
From:nlj21
Date:January 23rd, 2006 01:25 pm (UTC)
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You should read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, particularly the appendix in more recent releases where he writes in response to accusations that his position is just relativism. I've got a copy if you want to borrow it.

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From:thecritick
Date:January 23rd, 2006 01:52 pm (UTC)
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I think this makes you a relativist. Especially where you say that the stripes blur together as they get further away. And also (but less certainly) where you say that neither you nor anyone else can find the truth.

I don't see how an intelligent person can see that other intelligent people have argued the toss about things since the dawn of time and got it so wrong (whilst trying so hard to get it right) and not be a relativist. Unless one is a positivist, in which case there's no point in having the arguments about it all.
From:nlj21
Date:January 23rd, 2006 02:08 pm (UTC)
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By recognising that some people have got it more wrong than others.
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From:thecritick
Date:January 23rd, 2006 05:53 pm (UTC)
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You're still wasting your time, though.
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From:robert_jones
Date:January 23rd, 2006 11:01 pm (UTC)
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What are we all doing?
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From:cartesiandaemon
Date:January 23rd, 2006 02:42 pm (UTC)
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You're being insightful today!

The first half was great, and I love the scarf metaphor. Though I'm not sure how moral relativism does work; if we can make steady progress toward a common goal. In many respects, yes. Are there crucial differences? Does it make a difference if we advance technology to make the difference academic?
From:(Anonymous)
Date:January 23rd, 2006 03:51 pm (UTC)
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Well, I spent several hours of dinner on Friday discussing whether use of arguments based on experimental psychology put one into the same moral bin as people who claim that reality is socially constructed; I'm not sure any conclusions were really reached other than that society is socially constructed and reality isn't.

I find your first example interesting, as it was experiments involving fringes - stripes of light - that proved the wave nature of light. The experiments that prove that light is made of particles are slightly harder. The thing is, both models for the behaviour of light are true. But the model that light consists of rays which emerge from the eyes of observers is not true.

I'd just like to point you at http://www.geocities.com/ResearchTriangle/Facility/4118/misc/three.html , which is part of a longer, glorious essay on error in philosophical understanding from David Stove.
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From:pjc50
Date:January 23rd, 2006 03:52 pm (UTC)
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Grr, that's the second time LJ has logged me out without me noticing.
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From:jy100
Date:January 24th, 2006 11:21 pm (UTC)
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Oh dear, which version of what browser, and what operating system, are you using?
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From:meirion
Date:January 25th, 2006 01:32 pm (UTC)
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it's all LJ's fault, nothing to do with browsers or operating systems. it's to do with the stuff they've put in place due to the recent gaping hole in IE.

-m-
From:Dave Holland [org.uk]
Date:January 23rd, 2006 10:52 pm (UTC)
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Stripes? Badgers.
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From:robert_jones
Date:January 23rd, 2006 11:00 pm (UTC)
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I don't think it is really correct to say that scientists understanding of light toggled as such. After all, Newton and Huygens were contemporaries, and the insight of the quantum pioneers was that they were both right.

Life is certainly full of uncertainty, but that doesn't mean that some positions aren't closer to the truth than others.
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From:plinthy
Date:January 24th, 2006 11:07 am (UTC)
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For example:

"When people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."

-- Isaac Asimov
-- "The Relativity of Wrong"
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From:ixwin
Date:January 24th, 2006 12:39 pm (UTC)
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Life is certainly full of uncertainty, but that doesn't mean that some positions aren't closer to the truth than others.

As I understand it, atreic isn't denying that, though. There is a directionality to the scarf - travelling up the stripes one way takes you closer to the truth, and travelling the other way takes you further away. It's just that given two people who hold a superficially similar position - for example 'I believe this feather will fall more slowly than this iron ball' - they might have very different reasons for holding that position, and one's reasons might be very much closer to truth/reality than the other's.

So, when judging the likely truth of someone's views you cannot do it purely by reference to what those views are - you also have to find out why they hold them.
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From:atreic
Date:January 24th, 2006 12:49 pm (UTC)
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Oh, thank you, you saved me all the effort of having to reply to that and said it far better than I ever could :-)

In fact, that's a really nice example, because a) stupidly feathers should fall slower because they weigh less, but with more understanding we get b) the ideas of force and acceleration and both things falling at the same speed, yet with even more understanding we have to bring in c) air resistance and accept that the feather does fall slower.

My point is not just that b) is closer to the truth than a) even though superficially a) would appear "more right", but that (in as much as sweeping generalisations are ever correct) b) and c) probably are more similar people who will have more common ground/ shared beliefs / than a) and c), even though superficially a) and c) believe the same thing and b) and c) disagree.


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