Sunday, January 08, 2006

Objective analysis

Note: this isn't strictly speaking a Quality-related post, but it lays some groundwork for what I'm going to talk about next.

Reading list:
"The Globe: Science of Discworld #2" - Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen

One interesting thing about this life is it's never easy to get a straight answer. People by and large think in curves, and any answer they give you is likely to be a hyperbolic (apologies for pun) attempt to get you to do the same. Figuring out what is actually true based on the deeply biased information sources around you is about as easy as figuring which way is "up" when you've just been knocked off your surfboard and under the water by a 6ft wave.

This is why it's vitally important to figure out, as early as possible, what motivates the people around you. And nowhere is this more important than when figuring out what you should do.

For starters, any information that you get on morality from those around you is, in my experience, likely to be complete crap, the reason being that there's actually no such thing. It's a social construct and, like all social constructs, it attempts to imprint itself in the minds of those in the vicinity of its hosts.

How, then, to figure out what parts of the information you've been forcefed from an early age are remotely useful? How many of even the useful bits are any more than lies-to-children - approximations to the truth that are an effective way to keep you on the straight and narrow but that bear no resemblance to underlying reality?

Basically, there's no way. You're stuffed. By the point that you're able to actually read what I'm saying here (age 10 or so), you'll have been completely ruined as far as truly objective thought is concerned. The message of morality will have been beaten into you so strongly that you'll almost certainly be able to pass it on to the next generation with a straight face. Therefore the only way to build a better view of the world is to construct it logically and then hope like hell you can live according to it, regardless of how it clashes with your preconceived notions.

In my next post I'll start talking about the importance of critical thinking in building a truly high-Quality understanding of the world. It's quite a big topic so deserves its own post.

But wait, I hear you cry. If Lifewish is biased (which he almost certainly is) why should we trust him any more than we trust anyone else?

That's where the bit about bias comes in. Firstly, I'm writing this almost entirely for my own benefit - strike one against any deliberate bias. Secondly, I'm explicitly dealing with the issue of bias in my own thoughts, and when bias is dragged into the light it tends to die* - strike two. Thirdly, to the extent that I'm writing this blog for everyone else, my motives are very basic and thus easy to compensate for. Basically I find it a major ego-boost to think of you lot sitting down and actually stopping to think about my words. A motive that's pure as the driven yellow snow (to quote Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Strike three and out.

* This is the point of the scientific community. But that's another post.


Andrew Rowell said...


You assume that morality is entirely subjective. Is there not a morality integral with the use of language.. ie the root of morality is in the distinction between truth and this sense morality can be seen as hardwired into our nature as part of our ability to communicate...

Lifewish said...

The classic counterexample to the blunt statement that truth is good and lies are bad is:

It's 1940 and you're helping a Jewish family escape Nazi Germany. They're hiding in the cellar. Suddenly, a knock comes at the door. It's the SS, and they ask you "have you seen this Jewish family?" How do you respond:
1) "Yes, they're in the cellar"
2) "No, you must have the wrong house"

Going by the definition of "right" and "wrong" that you gave, the moral answer would be #1. Most people I know, however, would say that the moral answer was #2, and I'd tend to agree*.

Anyway, regardless of one's personal assessment of what constitutes right or wrong, this sort of situation - where the right answer isn't necessarily the correct answer - is always going to be something of a problem for the itinerant truth-seeker. A particular example is what Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen refer to as "lies to children"**, which goes as follows:

Basically, almost everything you're taught up to at least second-year undergrad level is a gross oversimplification of current thought. The reason it's taught to you is to prepare you for the next level of understanding. So, for example, in Fluid Mechanics I had to spend a term mucking about with the Bernoulli equation only to be informed that in fact this equation never works in real life and that I should instead be considering the Navier-Stokes equation. The reason for teaching Bernoulli, despite the fact that it makes the lecturer's nose grow about a foot a lecture, is that it is a lot simpler to compute so gives them time to beat concepts like streamlines into your brain.

This makes the task of determining the truth even less easy - it's practically impossible to distinguish lies-to-children from, well, lies. This can skew one's judgement of a teacher's credibility.

* This is probably a conversation for another post though. I've got a couple lined up on critical thinking and the scientific method, and then I'll come back to this.

** See the first "Science of Discworld" book for a more thorough exposition - I can't remember if this concept appears in the second.