"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 11, 2018

My Iron-Clad Case Is Rusty–Coming To Grips With Uncertainty In A Very Uncertain World

My iron-clad case is rusty
My open-and-shut one mildewed
The vent to my emotions not working
My heart strings frayed through
I'm a pitiable mess
My body needs overhaul
Prices are rising, and I'm surmising
I'll not be fixed at all (Anonymous)
Few people suggest that they might only be right when they make a statement; and far fewer place their statements within a context of probability and simply state their conclusion as if it were proven, unassailable fact. 
The more you know, the more forget
The more you forget, the less you know
The less you know, the less you forget
The less you forget, the more you know
Why study?
Men seem to fact-check their wives more than the reverse.  Women seem more prone to subjective interpretation and emotional conclusions; but they may be on to something.  Why bother with the ‘facts’, when there is no such thing?  Anyone with ingenuity and time on their hands can add subjective interpretations to the Wikipedia site on Henry VIII and put a positive spin on his legacy-driven womanizing.  Citations on John 1:1-5 range from classical Greek interpretations of logos and Platonic dualism to Hindu deism and New Age mysticism.  The verses have been parsed and mulled over for a millennium with few conclusive results. 

Image result for images greek word logos

Pope John Paul II was the most recent pontiff to call out Protestant evangelism for its dismissal of Augustinian logic, Aquinas, and the intellectual discipline of the Early Church fathers. The ‘anything goes’ spirituality of charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity has no place within the Church.  Logic and reason are not simply academic tools of exegesis, Paul said, but fundamental to faith.  Jesus cannot be revered as Savior and God without understanding the nature of his divinity, his humanity, and the Trinity.

Image result for images john paul ii

Yet such religious fundamentalism is ideal for today’s intellectually fluid generation.  One need not bother with Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, or Aquinas – academics who were more interested in promoting their intellectual credentials and in defending Christianity from heretics and apostates than coming to terms with the real, live, indecipherable Jesus Christ.  Christian fundamentalism is exactly right for a relativistic, post-factual world.

It is uncertain whether there was even a historical Jesus since there are only two contemporary references to him and these quite oblique and incidental.  The Gospels were written no earlier than 70 years after Christ’s supposed resurrection; and any psycho-linguist worth his salt will quickly cite the distortion in any narrative over time.  “John kissed Mary under an apple tree”, repeated from one listener to another a hundred times, will always be transformed.  No apple tree, no kiss, no love, no garden, no Romeo and Juliet; but refusal and righteousness. 

Few eyewitnesses to a crime agree on what they saw.  Four different storytellers reminiscing about the same event will tell different tales.  Uncle Harry either did or did not steal the prized and inestimable Victorian vase on Leona’s mantelpiece.  Kurosawa, Browning, and Durrell have all written about the impossible existence of fact.

Under such circumstances, why even be concerned about the truth?  Why spend intellectual energy, enterprise, and resources on a preordained wild goose chase?

To complicate matters even the most rational, logical, and objective observers have concluded that at the most elemental, fundamental level – quantum physics – there is no such thing as fact.  One can gauge the speed a subatomic particle travels said Heisenberg, but never determine its location.  It is only probable that Particle X will arrive at Position Y.  No guarantee.  No certainty.

Image result for images heisenberg uncertainty

Everything points to uncertainty – quantum physics, perceptual psychology, linguistics, socio-cultural theory. So why the hullabaloo about fact?  No story can be taken on face value, no politician on his word, no husband on his word, no economic projection on its assumptions, no historical interpretation on its veracity.

A few decades ago a doctor’s word was law.  Received wisdom.  Right or wrong, a patient did what the doctor ordered.  If he was wrong, there was no blame to be assessed   He did the best he could given his training and professional reputation.  It was a simpler age and one as reputable as today’s.  Both physician and patient are similarly absolved but this time not because of errant judgment but because of incomplete numbers.  If the probability of success on Operation X is 50 percent, and it is a success, then both doctor and patient are credited.  If the surgery failed, then it was probability’s fault and physician and client are absolved.   Is there any more value in trusting an algorithm than a country doctor? Death is a certainty in any case and rolling the dice in an attempt to beat it at craps is vanity at best.
And so I played it stately, sad, no frills,
While you kept up your repetitions, trills
And variations.
Hovering and wary,
You shunned my structures. Ever more contrary,
You coiled and squirmed in spasms  both continuous,
Spontaneous, free-wheeling, lithe and sinuous.
It seemed to me the harmony had gone:
We sang on, yes, but each a separate song.
Two butterflies together, intertwined,
We tangled on the same, but different, line (Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata)
Image result for images tolstoy

Perhaps it is best to sing on, each a separate song, tangling on the same but different line.  What is the point of insisting on concurrence when concurrence  means only compromise? Compromise at best is a willing demurral while the separate songs remain intact.

The irony of a highly precise mathematical age is that probability itself is only probable.  Worse, probability can never be independent.  In a not-so-distant religious past where God was ever-present, omniscient, and omnipotent, probability per se meant nothing.  Chance was never a neutral throw of the dice, but a sequence of ordained events.  Positive or negative outcomes were determined by one’s grace, God’s preference, or anything in between.

In a Darwinian world, chance was the instrument of evolutionary progress.  God never intervened, but random mutations assured the survival of advantaged species.  In the world of genetic engineering, chance is deliberately reduced.  No longer is sex a 50-50 proposition, nor intelligence, athletic ability, or susceptibility to disease; but the process of probability ‘adjustment’ is itself only probable.  What might be the unintended consequences of a male-skewed population? Or one with far more Michael Jordans than Einsteins? Or one engineered to resist Disease X which increases the likelihood of Disease Y? Why fret?
But you'd go raving mad if you considered all of this.
For every hour of every day ensuring you miss
each potential hazard that comes your way.
Sometimes it's better to be careless.
I've come to realize that meticulous planning
never really lead to anything stunning.

But miraculous luck you'd never expect
propels further than any other aspect.
The planning should work; it's meant to raise the chance.
But for some reason it's less likely to truly enhance
the future we desire or need or never thought about.

Sometimes it just makes you want to scream and shout.
But there's nothing you can do, no way to ensure,
the safe lifestyle you can't help but find a bore.
We all die sooner or later, I'm sorry.
But the question is... How soon? (Peter Watkins)
‘Fake news’ is in the news.  Observers on the Left are flummoxed by Donald Trump’s free and easy way with fact.  Yet his supporters have never been concerned with what he says but how he says it.  The message is not in actuality but virtuality. ‘Building a wall’ is a meme, a signifier, an indicator.  Immigration is a problem, says Trump, and The Wall means business.  Whether he gets it built or not is irrelevant.  ‘Morning in America’, ‘A Chicken in every pot’, ‘The War to end all wars’, ‘The Great Society’ have been familiar signifiers.  They mean nothing, nor have grounding in fact or probability.  Yet they all have been understood and accepted as ‘truth’ because of their affect.

Image result for images trump with miss connecticut

It is assume that our technological age will be the first to reduce probability to zero.  The more data that are generated, the more we will be able to hone in on fact.  Things will either be or will not be; but there can be no dispute about the temporality of fact.  It will always be subject to subjective interpretation.  Ptolemy was not stupid, only wrong – at least for now. Darwin is right for now, although enough doubt remains to suggest that all evolution may not be a matter of chance. Newton’s laws might well be overturned once science better understands celestial motion.  Who knows how long E=MC2 will remain.

There is no such thing as certainty, and even probability is a fictive notion derived from a temporally-defined mathematics.  Every age’s notion of probability is determined by its assumption of reality.  In a God-centered universe, probability means nothing.  In a Planckian world, it means everything.  In a Buddhist or Hindu one, it is irrelevant.

In our contemporary, Western world, it is never considered. ‘The chances of rain’ are as close as we get to metaphysics.  Perhaps we, ironically, have the inside track.  If reality is subjective, and probability is temporal and equally subjective, then without knowing it we are the philosophical avant-garde.
Don't mind if the index of sense is at zero,
Use words that run smoothly, whatever they mean;
Leander and Lilian and Lillibullero
Are much the same thing in the rhyming machine.
There are words so delicious their sweetness will smother
That boarding-school flavor of which we're afraid,
There is "lush"is a good one, and "swirl" is another,--
Put both in one stanza, its fortune is made (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.