We like to be entertained. We like surprise endings. We are amused by magic tricks and shows. Ordinary life is boring much of the time. These are some of the reasons we are susceptible to the conspiracy theories and untruths that have become even more prevalent than usual over the past decade and especially during the era of Donald Trump. Our predilection for surprise might also explain our growing fascination with “Reality TV,” an oxymoron given that most such shows are actually scripted to better appeal to the presumed audience.
To paraphrase The Byrds (Turn, Turn, Turn) who paraphrased Ecclesiastes—there is a time for this and for that, a time for entertainment, surprise, and magic and a time for trying to sort out the facts or the truth to the extent such sorting out is possible.
There is something in people; you might even call it a little bit of a gambling instinct… I tell people investing should be dull. It shouldn’t be exciting. Investing should be more like watching paint dry or watching grass grow. If you want excitement, take $800 and go to Las Vegas. Paul Samuelson, Nobel economist
A Madman Dreams Of Turing Machines by Janna Levin is a novel to read especially today because it focuses on the possibility of sorting out the facts. There is a point in the book where the mathematician Kurt Gödel asks the philosopher Moritz Schlick:
“How do you recognize a fact of the world?”
Janna Levin describes Schlick’s response:
Moritz laughs, but not rudely, and nods, which loosens his hair only marginally from its proper place before he stops himself, slightly sorry for his reaction as he takes in Kurt’s serious expression. “It is a fair question,” he confesses. “How do I verify a fact of the world?” Such a simple question. He cannot even answer this simple question. Despite his proclamations, Moritz knows something is wrong. No matter how disciplined he is in his adherence to logic, he cannot make sense of a method to verify facts of the world. He comes to ever narrowing definitions that magically take him farther from clarity. Spirals of rational thinking thread him closer to understanding only to unravel disappointingly far afield. As Moritz reaches for his coffee his motion is very slow, and it seems so even to him, the perspective telescopic. His fingers surround the cup and feel the heat. He pulls the cup to his face and sees the dark liquid. “How do I know this cup exists? I don’t,” he admits to himself. “I don’t.”
Being honest he can be sure only he sees. He can be sure only he touches. He watches Olga pull on a mammoth cigar. She has a calm about her, always at ease. The smoke drifts in curly plumes sifting through her lashes. She doesn’t seem to mind and even tends to hold the burning cinder vertically and uncomfortably close to her eyes. Her hair is collected loosely at the nape of her neck, a rumpled frame for her big and broad broken eyes.
She cannot see the cigar. What does it mean for her to say there is a cigar between her fingers? The meaning of the statement is that she feels the tobacco-stuffed wrapping. She tastes the juice and smoke. She senses it. Does it exist? That is not a meaningful question.
Nobel physicist Richard Feynman explains in The Meaning of it All how science answers Gödel’s question and why some doubt cannot be entirely eliminated.
Science means, sometimes, a special method of finding things out. (This being experiment which cannot quite cover every possible situation)
Scientists, therefore, are used to dealing with doubt and uncertainty. All scientific knowledge is uncertain. This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it …
We know that it is consistent to be able to live and not know. Some people say, “How can you live without knowing?” I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing. That is easy. How you get to know is what I want to know …
This freedom to doubt is an important matter in the sciences and, I believe, in other fields. It was born of a struggle. It was a struggle to be permitted to doubt, to be unsure
Doubt is important because, as Gödel and Turing demonstrate in Levin’s book, there are some truths we cannot ever know for sure. But, we can be fairly certain about many things based on what we do know from careful observation. So,
Keep an open mind – but not so open your brain falls out.
No, we don’t want our brain to fall out and we don’t want the democracy that we’ve managed to keep for nearly three hundred years to fall apart because a handful of Senators and a few Congressmen and even a large number of American voters are willing to put their personal interests and obeisance to Donald Trump ahead of their respect for a system that has brought us freedom and success in spite of not displaying the illusive perfect system of their dreams.
Mr. Ted Cruz (aka Lucifer in the Flesh) please NOTE: No significant verifiable evidence of voter fraud has been uncovered in spite of numerous attempts including President Trump’s Advisory Commission which disbanded for lack of such evidence in 2018. Not a single lawsuit challenging the validity of the 2020 election has been upheld including those heard by several Trump appointed judges. Votes have been counted and recounted in numerous states without any significant changes. Republican and well as Democrat governors, Secretaries of State, and legislatures have upheld and certified the votes. The numbers are overwhelmingly in Biden’s favor. Nothing you do is going to change anything but it may destroy the system you think you’re saving. So, get a grip already and don’t put us through this. Please. Pretty please with sugar on it.