More reasons not to trust your mind

Count those guys above. I mean, you can count, can’t you?

Now pay attention as we swap heads and feet.

Oops.

Are there 12 or 13?  You are paying attention, aren’t you? 😈

That little bundle of fun comes to The Hannibal Blog via Jim M., a regular reader here. Jim emailed me this and a few other links apropos of my recent rumination on human perception and memory — or rather the laughable fallibility thereof.

Here is a classic video clip that you’ve probably seen. Even if you have, watch it again. You might be surprised again:

Plus, for the masochists among you, a little puzzle to ruminate on, and another little illusion.

Thanks, Jim!

Conclusion: Never trust the human mind, your mind. (And thus be humble behind the wheel … by switching that gadget off.) 😉

False perception, false memory

The biggest social event of the year 1878 in Palo Alto, California, took place on a horse-breeding farm. Leland Stanford, former governor and co-founder of the all-powerful Southern Pacific Railroad, had retired and was indulging, here at the site where he would soon found Stanford University, in his passion, which was anything equestrian.

Stanford was, at a general level, an alpha male who trusted his own opinions. More specifically, when it came to horses, he considered himself “an expert”. So it was utterly clear to him that he, the expert, knew how horses galloped.

After all, all you had to do was look! And Stanford had looked, as had artists throughout all of human history. It was obvious that horses briefly “flew” by splaying their four legs in the air before alighting for the next leap. Like this:

So Stanford, as this account tells the tale, made contact with Eadward Muybridge, an eccentric Briton who had mastered the cutting-edge technology of the day, photography, and was able to take photos in rapid succession. Muybridge brought his kit to Palo Alto.

At Stanford’s invitation, large crowds turned out for the occasion. Muybridge was to document a galloping horse and thus prove common sense.

Eadweard Muybridge

Muybridge’s photos did nothing of the sort. Instead, they were shocking. For they disproved mankind’s common sense, thereby contradicting the direct observation of many generations.

You can see this disproof above, in the (deservedly famous) animation derived from the images. If you want to be sure, you can look at the stills in one of the other sequences:

During the only instant in the cycle when the horse is entirely in the air, its legs are actually tucked together, not splayed.

After Muybridge’s breakthrough, mankind thus had some adjusting to do, not least its painters:

Artists of the day were both thrilled and vexed, because the pictures “laid bare all the mistakes that sculptors and painters had made in their renderings of the various postures of the horse,” as French critic and poet Paul Valéry wrote decades later… Once Muybridge’s photos appeared, painters like Edgar Degas and Thomas Eakins began consulting them to make their work truer to life. Other artists took umbrage. Auguste Rodin thundered, “It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop.”

(Does Rodin’s reaction remind you of anything today?)

The general insight

The big point here is really that we should be less confident in (= more skeptical about — however you want to put it) our own opinions and grasp of reality. That’s because:

  • we tend to “see” what we want or expect to see (as Stanford did with his horses),
  • what we notice is determined by what we pay attention to (which is why distracted driving is so dangerous), and
  • we can only make sense of the world by interpreting it through stories we tell, and storytelling can be problematic.

In that sense, this post is a follow-up on

This topic seems to strike a chord with writers and journalists in particular. The other day, for instance, I was discussing it with Rob Guth, a friend of mine at the Wall Street Journal. Rob recently wrote great stuff about the surprising recollections of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (surprisingly negative about Bill Gates, in particular). As Rob got deeper and deeper into his research — meaning: as he “fact-checked” his sources’s memories of Microsoft’s early years — the “truth” became ever more elusive. Was so-and-so in the room all those years ago when such-and-such happened? A says Yes, he was. B says No. Suddenly A begins to doubt himself (re-narrating the story in his mind). And so on.

Journalists, of course, are not the only ones relying on the recollection or observations of others. Judges, lawyers and jurors do as well, to name just one particularly germane area.

Can you trust eyewitnesses?

In this article, Barbara Tversky, a psychology professor, and George Fisher, a law professor, suggest that eyewitnesses cannot always be trusted. (Since witnesses are at the heart of the adversarial legal system, this undermines our entire tradition of justice.)

As Tversky and Fisher say,

Several studies have been conducted on human memory and on subjects’ propensity to remember erroneously events and details that did not occur. …

In particular,

Courts, lawyers and police officers are now aware of the ability of third parties to introduce false memories to witnesses…

But even without such tricks,

The process of interpretation occurs at the very formation of memory—thus introducing distortion from the beginning. … [W]itnesses can distort their own memories without the help of examiners, police officers or lawyers. Rarely do we tell a story or recount events without a purpose. Every act of telling and retelling is tailored to a particular listener; we would not expect someone to listen to every detail of our morning commute, so we edit out extraneous material.

In fact, these studies show what Rob discovered during his interviews of sources for the Paul Allen story:

Once witnesses state facts in a particular way or identify a particular person as the perpetrator, they are unwilling or even unable—due to the reconstruction of their memory—to reconsider their initial understanding.

Tversky and Fisher conclude:

Memory is affected by retelling, and we rarely tell a story in a neutral fashion. By tailoring our stories to our listeners, our bias distorts the very formation of memory—even without the introduction of misinformation by a third party…. Eyewitness testimony, then, is innately suspect.

And:

It is not necessary for a witness to lie or be coaxed by prosecutorial error to inaccurately state the facts—the mere fault of being human results in distorted memory and inaccurate testimony.

Nietzsche: Bitter truth or happy illusion?

Nietzsche

“If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.” So Friedrich Nietzsche, aged only 19, ends a touching letter to his younger sister Elizabeth.

Nietzsche, son of a (by then dead) Lutheran pastor from a small, conservative town and family, was at this time a student in Bonn, drinking too much (and getting a beer belly) in his fraternity and even engaging in the odd duel and dropping by the odd brothel. Above all, however, he was expanding his mind. And with that came certain ideas.

Ideas about God, in particular. They horrified his mother and younger sister, who otherwise adored Fritz. Fritz, as we now know, would go on to become the bad boy of philosophy, the man who told us that God is dead and so forth. Those would be the ideas for which I consider him one of the world’s greatest thinkers. But at this point, he was just a sweet older brother, being tender with his li’l sis.

Elizabeth, hoping to bring him back to the church, had written him that

it is much easier not to believe than the opposite, and the difficult thing is likely to be the right course to take…

(I am quoting all this from pages 58-60 in Julian Young’s excellent “philosophical biography” of Nietzsche, which I am currently devouring.)

To which brother Fritz answered:

… Concerning your basic principle, that truth is always to be found on the side of the more difficult, I agree in part. However, it is difficult to believe that 2 x 2 does not equal 4. Does that make it therefore truer?

On the other hand, is it really so difficult simply to accept as true everything we have been taught, and which has gradually taken firm root in us, and is thought true by the circle of our relatives and many good people, and which, moreover, really does comfort and elevate men? Is that more difficult than to venture on new paths, at odds with custom, in the insecurity that attends independence, experiencing many mood-swings and even troubles of conscience, often disconsolate, but always with the true, the beautiful and the good as our goal?

Is the most important thing to arrive at that view of God, world and reconciliation which makes us feel most comfortable? Is not the true inquirer totally indifferent to what the result of his inquiries might be? When we inquire, are we seeking for rest, peace, happiness? Not so; we seek only truth even though it be in the highest  degree ugly and repellent.

Still one final question: if we had believed from our youth onwards that all salvation issued from someone other than Jesus, from Mohammed for example, is it not certain that we should have experienced the same blessings? It is the faith that makes blessed, not the objective reality that stands behind the faith. I write this to you, dear Lisbeth, simply with the view of meeting the line of proof usually adopted by religious people, who appeal to their inner experiences to demonstrate the infallibility of their faith. Every true faith is infallible, it accomplishes what the person holding the faith hopes to find in it, but that does not offer the slightest support for a proof of its objective truth.

Here the ways of men divide: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.

There are some timeless ideas in this innocent passage. For instance, Nietzsche already phrased (more eloquently, I might add) what would become Richard Dawkins’ opening attack in The God Delusion in our time.

And he expressed (again, more eloquently) what every free thinker feeling the pressures of political correctness has felt since. (Compare, for instance, Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary biologist at the LSE I like to read.)

Yes, there is indeed a choice to be made.

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Is or Ought, true or good

Satoshi Kanazawa

I’ve recently discovered the blog of Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics (LSE), which happens to be one of my alma maters (I got my Masters there).

It is called The Scientific Fundamentalist, and for good reason. As he says here,

From my purist position, everything scientists say, qua scientists, can only be true or false or somewhere in between. No other criteria besides the truth should matter or be applied in evaluating scientific theories or conclusions. They cannot be “racist” or “sexist” or “reactionary” or “offensive” or any other adjective. Even if they are labeled as such, it doesn’t matter. Calling scientific theories “offensive” is like calling them “obese”; it just doesn’t make sense. Many of my own scientific theories and conclusions are deeply offensive to me, but I suspect they are at least partially true. Once scientists begin to worry about anything other than the truth and ask themselves “Might this conclusion or finding be potentially offensive to someone?”, then self-censorship sets in, and they become tempted to shade the truth. What if a scientific conclusion is both offensive and true? What is a scientist to do then? I believe that many scientific truths are highly offensive to most of us, but I also believe that scientists must pursue them at any cost.

Well, in this post, The Hannibal Blog would simply like to endorse and celebrate Kanazawa — both his approach and philosophy and his research and style.

Subscribe to his blog! It will do what I secretly hope The Hannibal Blog occasionally does for you:

  • intrigue you,
  • offend you,
  • delight you,
  • enrage you,
  • enthrall you.

How? Because it does not — as so much of the politically correct piffle out there does — try to achieve one half of the above effects without the other half. It has writerly courage. More specifics to come.

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Great, if not greatest, thinker: Galileo

Galileo

Four hundred years ago exactly, Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope at the moon and began, with his wonderfully open mind, writing down what he saw. Other people had done this before him. So why include Galileo in my pantheon of the greatest thinkers ever?

Two reasons:

  1. He made us understand that our universe is much bigger than we could imagine.
  2. He, in his human and fallible way, stood up for truth against superstition, ignorance and fear, otherwise known as… but I get ahead of myself.

I) The universe is bigger than we can imagine

It’s one of those many cases in science, and in all thought (think: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle), when a great contribution came from several people building on the work of one another. This is wonderful. We place far too much emphasis on the solitary genius.

In Galileo’s case, he built on the prior work of, among others,

  1. Copernicus,
  2. Tycho Brahe, and
  3. Johannes Kepler,

in the process proving wrong the views of Aristotle and everybody else that the sun (and everything else) moved around the earth.

Copernicus

Copernicus

Copernicus was the first to realize that the earth in fact moved around the sun, which must count as one of the most revolutionary (pun intended) advances in our understanding of ourselves and our world. But Copernicus assumed (and why not?) that the orbit was a circle.

Tycho Brahe took things an important step further not so much by thinking as by measuring: the motion of Mars, in particular. He created data, in other words.

Kepler

Kepler

Kepler, who was Brahe’s assistant, then looked at those data and realized that our orbit, and those of the other planets, could not be circular but had to be elliptical. (A colleague of mine wrote a good and quick summary of all this.)

And Galileo? He filled in a lot of the blanks with his telescope.

  • He saw the moons of Jupiter, realizing that they were orbiting another body besides the earth and the sun, which was a shocker.
  • He saw that Venus was, like earth, orbiting the sun.
  • He saw that the sun was not a prefect orb.
  • He saw that the Milky Way contained uncountable stars just like our own sun.

For Homo Sapiens, who was still coming to terms with the fact that the earth was round, all this was almost too much to bear. Our universe was vastly, unimaginably, bigger than the Bible had told us. How would we react to that news?

II) Those who seek and are open to truth will have enemies

This brings us to the church, or shall we say “religion” generally. The church hated Galileo and everything he said and stood for. He questioned what they thought they “knew”, which unsettled them, scared them, threatened them. But they had power. With Nietzschean ressentiment, they attacked him.

You can make anybody recant, and Galileo did. Sort of. In any case, he was declared a heretic and sentenced to house arrest for his remaining life.

In one of my all-time favorite ironies, the Catholic Church, having condemned him, decided–359 years later, in 1992, two years before I sent my first email!–that Galileo was in fact right. How? A committee had discovered this. Good job, guys.

And so, Galileo is still with us, inspiring many. As he discovered that our universe was incomprehensibly big, we are discovering, as another colleague of mine, Geoff Carr, puts it, that

the object that people call the universe, vast though it is, may be just one of an indefinite number of similar structures … that inhabit what is referred to, for want of a better term, as the multiverse.

And as Galileo had to confront the the mobs of ignorance, fear and superstition, so do we today. Here, remind yourself with this casual comment by an Arizona state senator (!), Sylvia Allen, Republican, that the earth is 6,000 years old:

Oh, and what about Aristotle? He was the one proved wrong, you recall. That’s OK, as I have argued. You can be wrong sometimes and still be a great thinker, provided you were genuinely looking for the truth.

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Spunky language in the search for truth

Yesterday I gave an example of bad–meaning squeamish, cowardly and therefore intentionally obtuse–writing. Today I came across an example of good–meaning courageous, irreverent and therefore clear and authentic–language.

It comes in the form of a spunky almost-ninety-year-old Welsh lady named Elaine Morgan. She took the stage at TED and clearly and humorously laid out her case that we descend not from apes that stood up because they left the trees and went onto the savannah (the mainstream paradigm) but rather from aquatic apes. The video is below.

A few things, before you watch:

  • Her theory is fascinating, but whether or not it convinces you is not my point. Most people are not convinced.
  • My point is the clarity of her language that comes from her courage, the corollary of my view that bad writing/expression comes from fear.
  • Worth noting: Morgan’s talk contains humor and sprezzatura, which often accompany courage but never cowardice.
  • She nods to Thomas Kuhn, whom I declared one of the runners-up for the title of greatest thinker ever. Kuhn, remember, was the guy who described how scientists will disregard any evidence (and messenger) that does not fit their paradigm until that paradigm collapses entirely. It is her way of saying to her audience: Snap out of it and open your minds!
  • Listen to her point about how to treat “priesthoods”!
  • Finally, think about how she would react if new evidence came to light that proved her theory wrong but advanced our understanding. Would she be upset? Or would she celebrate?



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Socrates, individualism and conformity

Here is one way of seeing the timeless relevance of Socrates for us today: Think of him as the archetype of individualism fighting against oppressive social conformity.

In this thread on Socrates, I’ve already looked at some noble and less noble aspects of the man’s character. And every time I found him to be thoroughly modern and recognizable. So too in this way.

Watch the 2-minute video above of the famous Asch Experiments that began in 1956. They were devastating: We saw confirmed what we already suspected, that people will readily surrender truth to a group.

To me, still emerging from my old Ayn Rand phase, this was always the ultimate, the most disgusting, sin. To me, this is how the Nazis perverted an entire nation, how Mao’s Red Guards did it again, how all great evil throughout history spreads.

Hence the inherent appeal of a hero such as Socrates. He told the group (the Athenians) to bugger off. In return, they killed him for it. (This will get a lot more nuanced in future posts, but let’s leave it at that for now.)

If Socrates had sat in the Asch Experiments, he would never have changed his answer.

But should the group really bugger off?

If it were as simple as all that, The Hannibal Blog would not find this so interesting. But it is not so simple. It turns out that we have moved on from the Asch Experiments somewhat. Read, for instance, Bert Hodges and Anne Geyer, two psychologists who took a new approach.

The people who might change their answer to “lie” in unison with the group were in fact facing an exceedingly difficult situation that inherently required all sorts of complex trade-offs, they argue:

  • On one hand, there is the value of truth.
  • On the other hand, there is the value of social solidarity.

In practice, most people did not conform consistently (ie, “lie” with the group every time) but varied their response in what Hodges and Geyer call

patterns of dissent and agreement to communicate larger scale truths and cooperative intentions.

In short, they were being biological organisms that keep in mind 1) their own survival in a group and 2) the survival of the group as a whole.

Now this is exactly the sort of poppycock that I used to have no time for at all. But as I get older I see more complexities. In Socrates’ case, for instance, there actually was a specific threat to the group survival of the Athenians, and I will get to that.

So we can add another timeless conundrum to the issues that Socrates raised. We already said that truth often conflicts with gentleness and kindness, and that one cannot assume truth must always win this fight. What if Hodges and Geyer are right and truth must also occasionally take a backseat to those “larger truths”– and that Socrates, failing to understand that, paid a fair price?

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More trouble with “truth”: Religion

In opening this thread on Socrates and his relevance to our modern lives, I mentioned “an oddly serendipitous string of events”: Several of you had, independently, emailed me with links and thoughts that, directly or indirectly, touched on issues that Socrates raised.

Here is one example, which segues from the previous post on Socrates’ negativity, his apparent sacrifice of gentleness at the altar of unvarnished truth. A few weeks ago, Joel Rotem, a reader of The Hannibal Blog, emailed me this TED talk of theologist Karen Armstrong, in which she puts forth a theory of “good” religiosity. Joel was sceptical and asked philosophically:

Is it OK to misinform your listeners in order to get to a noble target? Do the ends justify the means?


As you see, Armstrong wants to persuade us that religion is not really about “believing” this or that, but about behaving in a certain way: with compassion. All religions, she argues, have at their core a version of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Hatred, she infers, is alien to true religiosity and a form of “hijacking” religion.

Now, this is of course a Rorschach test of sorts. Those who would like to exonerate religion will tend to confabulate ways to agree with Armstrong, those who would like to indict religion will do the opposite. Joel is in the later camp, as I tend to be. But that is not the point.

The point, as Joel said in our impromptu debate (because Socratic dialectic seems to come naturally and effortlessly to readers of The Hannibal Blog ;)) is this same tension between true and good that got Socrates into so much trouble. Joel’s words:

In western thought, we often equate truth with good (both very subjective terms). Telling the truth is good. Lying is bad. We must always strive to reveal the truth. We have book and movies dedicated to heroes struggling to reveal the truth. Some of our (my) heroes fighting to reveal the truth include: Woodward and Bernstein, Galileo and hey, how about that Superman guy fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Seems pretty open and shut until you listen to a Karen Armstrong. Is it better to paint Islam as the religion of humility and peace or to [point to] Islam’s bloody roots and doctrines?

Joel did not single out Islam but implicated all religions. He then listed other topics, beyond religion, where “truth” will get you into a world of hurt. For instance, race: What if we were to discover a truth that we would find just too apalling to entertain? We seem to need lies to maintain civilization. The problem, as Joel said,

is of course the slippery slope. Who says what lies we should believe for the common good?


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The original “gadfly”: Socrates’ negativity

783px-Horse_fly_Tabanus_2

Socrates saw himself as “a gadfly to a horse”, where the horse was Athens–a “sluggish horse” in need of a bit of “stinging”. This the origin of our cliché. As we keep discovering in this thread on Socrates, the old man is still with us all the time, whether we are aware of it or not.

Socrates also liked to compare himself to a midwife. (Perhaps that metaphor came to him because his mother was a midwife.) What he meant by it was that, through his dialectical questioning and conversation, he “birthed” the thoughts that his conversation partners were already pregnant with. Put differently: He felt that he brought something out of people: he led (Latin ducare) something out (ex), ie educated.

But how did others see him?

Cicero, a few centuries later, said that Socrates practiced a “purely negative dialectic which refrains from pronouncing any positive judgment.”

Hippias, one of the sophists (teachers) Socrates interrogated, said that “You mock at others, questioning and examining everybody, and never willing to render an account yourself or to state an opinion about anything.”

Meno, another conversation “partner”, tells Socrates that “You are extremely like the flat torpedo sea-fish; for it benumbs anyone who approaches and touches it… For in truth I feel my soul and my tongue quite benumbed.”

In short, it is hard to avoid concluding that Socrates left everybody feeling bad. If you were lucky, he merely belittled or embarrassed you; if you were unlucky, he exposed and humiliated you. He never made anybody feel confident or good. In our lingo, he left everybody 😦 and nobody 🙂 .

What if Socrates had talked to Patanjali?

This is quite worth thinking about.

You recall that Patanjali was my nomination for the title of “the world’s greatest thinker ever“. He was the original sage of Ashtanga Yoga. Which is to say: Whereas the Bhagavad Gita outlines Ashtanga Yoga (which it calls “Raja Yoga”: “regal union” or “kingly discipline”) in a narrative form, Patanjali was the first to analyze the “how to”, step by step.

As it happens, he had a lot to say about something that Socrates valued: truth, or Satya in Sanskrit. It is one of the Yamas, or ethical principles, that yogis must adhere to if they want to embark on the journey that leads to enlightenment. Don’t lie, in Commandment language, to others or yourself.

But Patanjali is more subtle than Socrates. Another of the Yamas is Ahimsa, non-violence: Don’t hurt people (others or yourself), physically or psychologically.

The subtlety lies in understanding that Satya and Ahimsa, truth and gentleness, often conflict. It may be true that you are ugly, but do I need to tell you that and hurt you? In Socrates’ case, it may have been true that his interlocutors were, if not ignorant, at least far less wise than they pretended. But did he need to humiliate them publicly?

There was widespread consensus that his negativity helped the cause of truth only insofar as it tore down certain falsehoods. That’s a step forward! But Socrates did not then build on the rubble with a positive truth.

Patanjali might ask Socrates: What, sir, were you trying to accomplish by humiliating your opponents in your dialectic? Did you not forget your own distinction between eristic dialogue, in which the parties try to win, and proper dialectic, which brings people closer together in the common search for truth?

Sometimes, in life and world history, one must be violent in the name of truth. Other times truth is not worth violence. There must be a higher purpose, a positive goal. Otherwise a gadfly is just another gnat that bites to feed on the blood of others.

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