Unreasonable Doubt

I recall reading years ago about the results of a study that showed beyond doubt that the self-esteem movement was based on a faulty assumption. Telling kids they were great because they breathed in and out on a fairly regular basis did not, in fact, breed self-confidence. In California, where the self-esteem movement was started, the study was denied by at least one city councilman who said: “I don’t care what the evidence shows. I know it works.” In fact, the study showed that the kids who were told they were great knew damned well they were not and what was bred was not self-confidence but contempt for their elders. I worked with kids for years and, believe me, they know when they are being duped. They sense falsehood the way a dog senses fresh meat on the floor. They may not be able to articulate it, but they sense falsehood and pretense.

In any event, the doubting of science is not new and it seems to have been given new life in recent years as people who should know better insist that scientific evidence about climate change is bogus and science, in general, ought to be dismissed out of hand as an attempt to alarm and upset the rest of us. The people who make these outrageous claims are obviously in denial (or the pockets of Big Oil) as they proceed to make their coffee in electric coffee-makers, make office calls to their local physician when in pain, drive their automobiles, fly around the world in airplanes — all activities involving faith in scientific ingenuity. In a word, we have here a case of denial in the form of selective beliefs. We reject those beliefs we find uncomfortable and we adopt as certain those that make us feel good.

This would not be a serious problem, of course, if we weren’t talking about the survival of the human species and possibly even the planet itself. Selective belief has been around, I dare say, since the dawn of time. For all we know the saber-tooth tiger fell victim to it! But we are now living in an age in which the rejection of science borders on the insane. Science is not THE answer to all our problems. Heaven knows, Horatio, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in science. But, at the same time, science can provide us with a fairly certain guide to human conduct that will not only fly us anywhere we want to go, but also help us avoid the deep pitfalls that await those who insist upon walking around with blindfolds across their eyes.orwell-1

I am a firm believer in testing all claims to truth. Critical thinking is essential if we are to survive as individuals and as a species. But it is not critical thinking that insists upon the rejection of scientific truth; it is sheer stupidity, if not duplicity. There are certain things that are beyond doubt: the probability is so high as to approach certainty. When 97% of the scientific community agrees about the dangers of continued abuse of the planet, we can be fairly confident that this is true — even if we can’t follow their arguments and decipher their complicated data.

It pays us to be cautious when the stakes are as high as they are. And it pays to check for hidden agendas among those who deny climate change as well as those who insist it is a fact. The deniers have a great deal at stake, to wit, their increasing profits in the sort term. The affirmers are scientists who are simply concerned about the future of this planet and who have no hidden agendas — despite all the false charges laid at their feet. It might be the better part of wisdom to pay attention to those who are shouting alarms in increasingly louder voices and ignore those who insist on looking the other way. It just makes sense.

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Submerged Concern

I recently discussed a Reuters poll that showed that more than 60% of Americans of all political stripes would like to see the E.P.A. maintain its present strength or increase it to help protect the environment. Indeed, polls have shown for years that Americans are concerned about the environment, a concern that usually appears among the top ten with astonishing consistency. And yet, as I have noted, when it comes to electing our representatives to Congress we tend to ignore their stand on the environment and show a much greater concern for such things as terrorism, defense, and the economy.  This has been a pattern for many years and it requires some explaining.

I’m not sure I can provide that explanation, but I can speculate — a thing I tend to be fairly good at, since it requires little research. I am guessing that the concern over the environment is indeed genuine. I don’t question it at all. But it is what I would call a “submerged concern.” That is, it’s there, but it doesn’t surface in any meaningful way. It will surface, of course, when we can no longer drink the water, breathe the air, or are forced to pay two week’s salary for groceries.  But until then, since it is not as pressing for most folks as, say, being able to make the payment on the new SUV, it will remain submerged.

Much of our tendency to keep the concern submerged is fear, of course. None of us wants to think about the dire consequences of continued attacks on the earth which supports us and the air that we require. And none of us wants to make sacrifices. God forbid that we should drive more economical cars and grab a sweater when we are chilly rather than turning up the thermostat! But some of it, at least, is due to our unreasonable conviction that no matter how great the problem someone will solve it. We have blind faith in science — while at the same time we question the veracity of the scientists who tell us that we are destroying the planet. (No one said folks worry about such things as consistency — the minds of so many of us resembling in many ways a rat’s nest of confused bits and pieces of truth, half-truth, and blatant falsehoods — all of which are bound together by wishful thinking. It’s the only kind of thinking a great many people are capable of, sad to say.)

In any event, we are faced with the undeniable fact that a great many people in this society repeatedly elect to Congress men and women who are paid to vote for Big Oil and whose reelection depends on continuing to support programs and people who are hell-bent on taking as much plunder out of the earth as humanly possible and leaving it to future generations to clean up the mess — while they gasp for air and drink Kool-Aid made up of reconditioned toilet water, presumably. We fault those folks in Congress, as we should. They really should put the well-being of their constituents before their own political party and their own re-election. But, judging form the past, this will not happen as long as the cushy jobs in Washington pay well (and the representatives see to that) and the voters are stupid enough to keep them in office. And the fault that this is allowed to happen is our own.

The founders made it clear that the idea was to rotate the representatives every couple of years so there would be new blood and new ideas. George Washington was smart enough to know that the President, at least, should have term limits. At that time the jobs didn’t pay very well and involved a lot of work for men who had more important things to get back to at home. But slowly and surely representation in Congress turned into a full-time, high-paying  job and those in office found that they were making huge piles of money and really preferred to keep things that way. Voting for clean energy and against Big Oil simply doesn’t fit into that scheme. This is why there should be term-limits, of course, but more importantly, it is why we should vote out of office those whose only concern is for themselves and their own well-being. What will it take to wake enough people up to the very real dangers we all face in the not-so-distant future? That is the question!

Pascal’s Wager

I am re-blogging a (slightly modified) post from over a year ago in light of the fact that our president-elect is convinced that global warming is a hoax and the Wisconsin D.N.R. has declared that global warming is merely a “subject of scientific debate.” Both of these positions are irrational and, worse yet, a gamble with the lives of countless folks who will be affected if and when the scientific community is proven to be correct. In the meantime, I argue here that we should all err on the side of caution: it is the only sane position to take in light of the probable consequences of being wrong about a situation that is so deeply serious to us all.

I have remarked in the past, as have others, that it makes good sense to “err on the side of caution” when it comes to the issue of climate change. If we suppose that the scientific research is all wrong, or mostly wrong, or that humans have had nothing whatever to do with global warming (both of which are extremely unlikely), we should still act as though the threat is very real. While it would require that the Congress get out of the pocket of Big Oil, for most of us it would involve minimal personal sacrifices — such as lower temperatures in our houses in the Winter or higher temperatures in the Summer. But if we were to rely on renewable energy, drive smaller cars, walk or ride a bike, we might just begin to reverse the trends that science has shown are now taking place. In a word, we would, perhaps, avoid a calamity of global proportions that is otherwise almost certain to take place. If we are unwilling to do these small things, and continue to deny the evidence that is considerable, the consequences will almost certainly be dire.

Thus, it simply makes good sense to err on the side of caution. It costs us little and could help preserve the planet and if we turn out to have been wrong (or the science was wrong) it has cost us little. Those who refuse to take this line of reasoning are making a huge gamble that they are right and 97% of the scientific community is wrong. This is a gamble that no human being should take upon himself or herself, and those who are in positions of power to mandate remedies and refuse to do so assume a huge responsibility; they are being just plain stupid, if not immoral.

I am reminded of “Pascal’s wager” which the mathematician/philosopher recounts in his Pensées where he suggests that it would be wise to bet that God exists because even if He doesn’t we would still lead better lives than if we insist that He does not exist and pursue a dissolute life and risk all. And if we accept that He does exist, we might enjoy the joys of heaven after we die — rather than the awful alternative. Pascal insists it is simply a matter of common sense. As he puts it in his somewhat terse style:

“But you must wager. It is not optional. . . Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. . . “

The issue, again, as Pascal saw it, is pressing: we must wager. So is the issue of global warming, except that the gamble in the latter case involves the entire planet whereas Pascal is only concerned about an individual soul. If we lose, we lose all.

 

Post Truth

The folks who publish  Oxford Dictionary have decided to introduce a new term in the world’s American/English vocabulary: post-truth. To be specific:

After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

There are two things that must be noted about this new term. To begin with, the reduction of truth to “emotion and personal belief” is not new. Hardly. It has been around ever since humans started worrying about what is and what is not the case. Even the brightest among us find ourselves accepting as true those statements that fit nicely with our belief-set. If it is comfortable, it must be true. The only thing new here is that this reduction has become commonplace to the point where a great many people now dismiss as false even those claims for which there is a mountain of evidence — such things as global warming, for example. But the notion is rejected because it makes people feel uncomfortable, not because it is false. After all, should we have to alter our life-style just because a bunch of scientists tell us the earth is slowly being destroyed by our ignorance and neglect? The answer is, of course, “yes.” But not for those who reduce truth to personal belief.

But it behooves us to consider what truth is before we reject it out of hand. It pertains to statements, or claims. And those statements are true if, and only if, there is a fact “out there” that corresponds with that statement. If there is, in fact a blue chair in my living room I can make the statement that it is so and anyone who chooses to do so can go into the living room and corroborate the claim for himself or herself. Moreover, even if a claim cannot be immediately verified by me, if it is coherent and fits logically with a set of facts known to be true, independently of my own particular wishes or desires, then that claim can be regarded as itself true. That’s the point: truth claims can be verified, or corroborated by anyone at any time. They are not private claims; they are not a personal set of statements that I find comforting. Truth is universal, it is not subjective and relative. Beliefs are relative and personal, but beliefs may or may not have anything whatever to do with truth.

Science deals in truth, because the claims of the scientist can be verified by any other scientist at any time. If the claims cannot be verified, such as claims regarding cold fusion, for example, then the scientific community rejects those claims as false. It matters not how much I want to believe in cold fusion, the evidence suggests that it is not possible. And until it can be verified by the scientific community — and anyone else who might be interested — it must remain merely a hope.

But we should all be concerned about the truth or falsity of the things we say and not just the scientists among us. The recent phenomenon involving major politicians standing before huge crowds and spouting innumerable untruths has become commonplace — to the point where we now talk about “post-truth.” But the concept is absurd and we must insist that there are claims that are true and claims that are not true regardless of how much we may want to believe or to disbelieve those claims. To reduce all claims to mere subjective belief is to turn our backs on features of our common world that we might find uncomfortable, but which may make our lives richer in the long run.  Like it or not, we must accept as true those claims for which there is a body of evidence that cannot be dismissed in all intellectual honesty, and not just because the person who said it did so with conviction or what he said fits nicely into my personal belief-set. A world consisting merely of personal beliefs is a shrunken world. It lacks dimension, color, and life.

Critical Thinking

According to Arthur Koestler, who should know, there exists in the Grand Scheme of Things a hierarchy of truths. At the top there is mathematics and theoretical physics whose claims are easily corroborated and verified by mathematicians and physicists around the world, regardless of race, creed, or color. At the bottom (and here I interpolate) there are the headlines of the latest National Enquirer that scream at us from the checkout lanes of our local grocery store: “Hillary is a racist, bigot, and criminal!” We need to know how to differentiate among the types of claims — for they are all claims, some of them well-founded and others outrageous.

The sciences range downwards from physics to the biological sciences, geology, anthropology, the social sciences that rely on probability theory and therefore pass themselves off as exact sciences, to philosophy, history, and the like. Again, we need to know where we are on the hierarchy because each of these disciplines requires a different approach and different types of corroboration. History, for example, relies on first-hand testimony, written documents and independent corroboration from different sources, all regarded as reliable. The key is “corroboration.” The sciences and social sciences, even philosophy, require independent corroboration by others in the field to check on the accuracy of the claims being made. Did Caesar cross the Rubicon? Who says? What evidence is there to corroborate this claim? Thus the historian proceeds to provide us with an accurate picture of what has occurred in the past. The expert seeks to show that the claim is false. If it cannot be shown to be false after thorough study, we can accept it as true. Then he asks his fellow experts to duplicate his efforts and test the claim for himself or herself.

When the National Enquirer makes its outrageous claims we should (but seldom do) ask the same sorts of question: how can those claims be corroborated? Who makes the claims? Are those sources reliable? Can they even be tested? If so, how? These are the types of questions the lawyer asks in a trial when a person is facing possible felony charges and perhaps time in prison. We should all be so circumspect, equally suspicious and demanding of the truth and not satisfied with what are merely empty claims or accusations.

This is the job of critical thinking and it should be taught in all our schools and certainly in all our colleges and universities. We all tend to accept as true those claims that fit in nicely with our closely held beliefs, our belief-set as I call it. But the critical thinker will allow the possibility that a claim that does not fit in nicely with his belief-set might still be true. Those who lack critical thinking skills (whose numbers grow daily from the look of things) will believe whatever they are told on Fox News or read in the Enquirer. The problem is that those who believe whatever they hear or read without subjecting those claims to the tests of corroboration and verification are most likely to be lead astray by someone who, say, might want to steal their vote in an upcoming election, or sell them farmland in the Everglades. They fail to realize that something is not true simply because they want it to be true (it fits in nicely with their belief-set) or because the guy up there with the funny hair and the small hands says it is true. The fact that he said the opposite yesterday is lost on these people because they lack the critical filters that would weed out the falsehoods and lies and recognize the inconsistencies.

Critical thinking teaches us to have a healthy suspicion. Not that we will doubt all claims, but that we will suspect that those that seem outrageous might well be so. We will accept as true only those clams that can be corroborated and verified, like the scientist. We will also recognize among those claims that are scientific but outside our small field of knowledge that claims made by experts in the field, say scientists who have studied such things as climate change or the evolution for species over the millennia, are making claims that we ought to accept as true until or unless they are later shown to be false. We ought not to simply reject those claims because they don’t fit into our belief-set or because they make us feel uncomfortable.

In the long run, it pays to be critical and suspect that many, if not all, claims that are designed to sell us something (or someone) are probably not true, or at least that they demand further investigation and thought. They should not be accepted simply because we read them in our favorite newspaper or heard them on the News. That suspicion is healthy and it is what critical thinking is all about: making sure that we will not be mislead into accepting as true what is blatantly false — or electing a fool as our president.

Expertise

One of the things that defines the times in which we live is our suspicion of anyone who presumes to know what he or she is talking about. We deny expertise. It’s one of the sadder effects of our egalitarianism. We move from the moral fact that all are equal to the absurd conclusion that no one knows any more than anyone else. Aside from our medical people and our auto mechanics, whom we must trust, we think all other opinions are of no great weight, certainly no better than our own. We forget what George Berkley once said: all opinions should be tolerated for what they are worth. Some opinions are heavy and others are so light they float away in the wind, many of our own included.

But if it is my opinion I am convinced that it weighs as much as yours, no matter who you are. “It’s just Plato’s opinion,” as one of my students said in reading a Platonic dialogue, with the clear implication that it weighed no more than this particular American college freshman’s did. “We are all entitled to our opinion” translates for many into “my opinion is just as good as yours.”

Take the issue of global warming, as an example. There are a great many people in our Congress who think that 97% of the scientists are wrong despite the fact that those scientists have examined the situation carefully and are reluctant to draw conclusions that cannot be corroborated by their peers. That is to say, those who sit on their butts every day making huge salaries think they are as smart as those who are paid very little to study the appropriate evidence and draw conclusions, many of which are unpalatable to them as individuals. Science is disinterested and a very strict task-master. Yet, those sitting on their butts in Congress, or running for president, claim to know better than they what is happening to our world. The problem is, of course, those who do not know control the mechanisms that might make our world a safer place in which to live and plan our collective future.

Expertise, if you think about it, is based on knowledge of one’s field. An expert in biology may not be the best person to ask about the literary value of a new novel. But in his or her field the opinions uttered have weight. We do ourselves a great disservice to ignore the experts in an age in which we are overwhelmed by information and have so little knowledge about so many things. Like it or not, we must trust others to help us understand what is going on in our world. If we have pain in the gut which we think results from listening to political lies, and it the pain persists, we really ought to visit the physician and listen carefully to what she has to say.

At some point we must trust the experts and acknowledge that there are people who know a great deal more than we do. We must trust those who know and know those who are worthy of our trust. But those people who stand up before us running for political office and who claim to know things that are patently absurd should not be trusted. We must always be on the alert for those who claim to be experts but who know less than we do, while at the same time acknowledging that there are experts who know a great deal more than we do. It requires judgment and scrutiny of every word and gesture — and a suspicious eye on the possibility that there is a hidden agenda somewhere that we might not want to embrace.

In a word: ask ourselves whether or not the person who is making the claim has something to gain from our believing what he or she has to say. The scientists who predict that our planet is in dire straights have nothing to gain from our accepting their conclusions. Those fat cats who sit in Congress and are paid to vote as the corporations want them to definitely have something to gain from the rejection of what the scientists have to say. And that politician with the strange hair who stands there making outrageous claims wants us to believe everything he says even though so much of it is bollocks. His agenda is not even that well hidden.

In a word, we must suspect all those “experts” who have a hidden agenda. But this is no reason to reject expertise altogether: there are some who really do know more than the rest of us. But, to my knowledge, none of them has strange hair.

Three Favorites

My blogging buddy Keith suggested that his readers list the three most popular posts each of us has written since we started writing them and I thought it might be fun. I note, however, that mine are not as uplifting and positive as are Keith’s. But I will list them and comment anyway.

I will start with my personal favorite, as far as I can recall, and that is “Lincoln’s Hope,” which had a number of “hits” but not as many as the top three.

The top of the list, by far is a post I wrote about Freud and Violence which I wrote in February of 2013 and which continues to get 20-30 hits a week. It has had 1,990 in all and that amazes me. The only thing I can figure is that a great many college students are copying the post and submitting it to their psychology professors for class credit! I hope they received the grade they deserved! On a more serious note, I expect there are a great many folks who, like me, seek to understand a phenomenon that has become all-too-common of late. I hope the post helped. I know that, like my posts generally, it helped me sort out some stray ideas and make some sense of a topic that I seek to understand better.

The next one is “The Big Bang, Science and Ethics” which I wrote after a particularly interesting and funny eposiode of my favorite “sit-com.” It addresses the question of just what science is at a time when so many people reject the findings of science when it shakes their favorite convictions and when so many confuse science with technology — which it is not.

The final one, also written in 2013,  is “Road Rage” which I wrote after a particularly nasty confrontation with a driver of a red pickup on a county road nearby when my wife and I were stopped admiring the wild turkeys in a field nearby. It made me think of all the rage there is on the roads and, indeed, in the world at large. This is a particularly disturbing fact at this time of the year when we like to think that we all hope for peace on earth and good will among all human beings. In any event, that’s what I wish to my readers, rage or no rage.

 

How Do We Know?

For the most part inquiring minds embrace the scientific method. They may not know exactly what that method is, but they would swear that this is the only way we really know anything for sure; it is the heart and soul of what we loosely call “common sense.”  That science has advanced civilization in numerous ways is incontrovertible — especially  scientific medicine which has prolonged life and made suffering comparatively rare.

The scientific method relies on empirical testing: seeing is believing. An investigator asks questions, suggests a possible explanation and then devises a test to determine whether the hypothesis they have come up with seems to bear out. If it does, it is regarded as true — at least until at some future date another test disproves the theory. The most reliable theories are those that can not be disproved: if no matter how hard we try we cannot dislodge the theory, it is regarded as the truth. An example of this is the theory of evolution which, while a theory, is still regarded as undeniably true by the scientific community — if not by some zealots on the far right. The same might be said about global warming, or what we euphemistically call “climate change.”

However, a blind commitment to the scientific method that rules out any other way of knowing is called “scientism,” and, strange to say, it suggests a closed mind. It does not simply accept the scientific method, it insists that all knowing must be reached by way of this method, and this method alone. It ignores the possibility that there may well be other ways we can know things that may not be empirically testable or falsifiable, but which may still be true — such as paranormal claims, poetic insights, intuition, and the like. Such truths are rejected by the strict scientist because they are neither testable nor capable of predicting future behavior. Paranormal phenomena, for example, while striking in many known cases, are measured against probabilities, and are not open to strict scientific methods. The ability that a few seem to have  to predict the turn of a card 93% of the time is extraordinary and highly improbable. But it is not predictable. Such phenomena are thus rejected by the scientific community.

None the less, a book entitled Crack In The Cosmic Egg written some years ago recounts innumerable striking examples of strange phenomena that cannot be tested by the scientific method but which still appear to be true — such as the ability of entire groups of people to walk on red-hot coals while in a hypnotic trance and not even feel the pain. Indeed upon further inspection, by disinterested Western observers, their feet showed no signs whatever of any burns! Various other examples are cited by the authors, yet there remain a great many skeptics. Consider the reluctance of Western medical science to accept as legitimate “holistic” medicine, such things as acupuncture or controlled diets which have shown remarkable capacity to cure pain and eliminate its cause. Additionally, it has taken years for many in the medical community to admit that allergies can be a serious health problem. Some medical people in the West, including the Mayo Clinic, are beginning to open their minds to new cures, including dietary changes, since it is impossible to deny that they have been successful for many years in Eastern cultures and among so-called “primitive” people. The same thing can be said for herbal cures, which defy scientific explanation but which work nonetheless. But it is still a major challenge to convince those who have committed themselves to the scientific method as the only possible way to know anything. As Hamlet said to his friend Horatio, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy — which in Hamlet’s day meant science.

In any event, there is something to be said for keeping an open mind. The exclusive commitment to scientific ways of knowing is just as stupid as the wholesale rejection of science by such groups as the fundamentalist Christians who see it as the work of the devil. Just as scientific minds were quick to condemn the Catholic Church for forcing Galileo to recant his claims about the heliocentric hypothesis (which we now know to be undeniably true), we should warn those same minds not to be closed to the possibility that science may not be the only way to find our way to truths that may assist us in coming to a deeper understanding of our fellow humans and the mysteries that surround us. In the end, we should always remain open to the possibility that there are questions we simply cannot answer.

One of the fascinating things to question is the limits of human knowing: Just how far can the scientific method take us? How many puzzles are open to rational explanation? How many things must remain a mystery regardless of how precise our methods of research happen to be? and How many things we know for sure cannot be proved in a strict sense?  Where does one draw the line between different ways of knowing? How do we separate truth from mere opinion? and How far we can extend our knowledge before we must simply admit we may never know? Whatever the answers to these questions might happen to be, we should never stop asking them.

Funny Or Comical?

One of the things that has always intrigued me is the nature of comedy. Yes, I am strange. But the thing I find most interesting is that the word “comedy” was originally attached to events that are not necessarily funny. For example, in drama it applies simply to plays that end happily. Comedy is a broader term and can be funny — or not.

Freud has discussed comedy as has Henri Bergson. But the best discussion I have ever read about the subject was written by Arthur Koestler, author of the haunting novel Darkness at Noon. He was also a journalist and an exceptionally deep thinker. His book The Act of Creation is one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. He analyses the act of creation and ties it into such diverse things as music and …. comedy. He takes as his point of departure the “Eureka!” moment when Archimedes discovered how to determine whether Hiero’s crown was solid gold or a mix of gold and silver without destroying the crown itself. He was, as you may remember, stepping into the bath when he realized that in doing so he displaced a certain amount of water whose volume could be measured accurately; by analogy he could now determine the density of the crown. It was a “Eureka!” moment and he reportedly ran down the streets of Syracuse naked shouting with glee. Now, that’s funny!

Koestler thinks such creative moments result from what he calls “bisociation,” the sudden and unexpected intersection of two independent planes of thought which he calls “matrices”:

“The essential point is that at the critical moment both matrices were simultaneously present in Archimedes’ mind — though presumably on different levels of awareness. The creative stress resulting from the blocked situation [Archimedes’ inability to solve his problem] kept the problem on the agenda even while the beam of consciousness was drifting along quite another plane.”

When the two planes intersected at the moment he stepped into the bath, he had solved the problem. Eureka! That was the “creative” moment. But what has this to do with comedy, you might ask? Everything. Take the following joke.

A. I hear there was a fire at the local university yesterday.

B. Seriously?

A. Yes, it totalled the library, destroying both books.

B. Ha!

A. And only one had been colored in!!

B. Again, Ha!

So it goes. B doesn’t expect A’s response: there is the sudden intersection of two independent matrices — one telling the story of the sad fate of the library at the local college, which tends to evoke sympathy in the listener and which is suddenly intersected by another matrix that cuts across the first and results in a laugh, a sudden release of emotion that was built up by B worrying, even for a moment, that the library had been burned down. Koestler calls this an “explosion.” This particular joke has two such moments — one when A says that both books were destroyed and another when he say that only one had been colored in. Neither is expected and both evoke a sudden release of emotion, mild though it may be (a small explosion?). This is not a thigh-slapper, and if it doesn’t tickle your funny bone, perhaps Freud’s joke recounted in his essay on the comic will:

Chamfort tells the story of a Marquis at the court of Louis XIV who, on entering his wife’s boudoir and finding her in the arms of a Bishop, walked calmly to the window and went through the motions of blessing the people in the street.

‘What are you doing?’ cried the anguished wife.

‘Monseigneur is performing my functions,’ replied the Marquis, ‘so I am performing his,’

Or, if you prefer the slightly sacrilegious, there is always the priceless New Yorker cartoon where Joseph and Mary are looking heaven-ward and the caption reads: “But we wanted a girl!”

All in good fun. I leave it to the reader to find the elements of bisociation that Koestler speaks about.

All comedy, according to Koestler, has that essential creative moment. It happens when two completely independent matrices intersect and the surprise we experience results, as a rule, in a laugh.  Sometimes, folks just “don’t get it.” They weren’t paying attention, or don’t see the intersection of the two matrices. Humor is subjective (comedy is not) and, while it does involve emotion, it is surprisingly cerebral. Indeed, the emotions involved in comedy, such as they are, tend to be assertive, aggressive emotions (even sadistic, according to Freud). If the emotions become stronger and change color, as when we laugh at the chair being pulled from beneath the would-be sitter only to realize from the expression on his face that he has hurt himself, then laughter immediately stops and a rush of sympathy or empathy takes its place. But the bisociation between two independent matrices remains essentially the same, though intros case, comedy becomes tragedy. Cervantes was able to exploit this basic relationship by making Don Quixote both comical and tragic — depending on how we feel about him at the moment. In other words, precisely the same bisociations can be comic or terribly sad, according to which emotions are involved and how strong they are. The very same bisociation of independent matrices occurs, according to Koestler, when the artist suddenly realizes how to “solve” the problem of the painting she has been struggling with, picks up the piece of driftwood lying on the sand because she suddenly sees several possibilities that no one else sees, or the scientist suddenly discovers, as did Archimedes, the solution to the problem he was pondering. Creativity occurs by bisociation, Koestler insists, in both science and the fine arts. And in comedy as well.

Some things can be comical without being funny and some things like exaggeration, jokes, and caricature are both comical and funny.  But all are essentially creative. Now I find that interesting.

To Tell The Truth

In several of my comments on posts by my friends Barney and BTG I have been circling around an issue that I think deserves expansion. It has to do with one of the central problems we face as a nation and as a human race, if that doesn’t sound like hyperbole. And it has to do with our increasing inability to tell (and recognize) the truth. On ESPN, for example, we hear about a “six pax of cold-hard facts” which turn out to be a load of opinions that amount to little and certainly should not be confused with facts — unless you can say that Jackson held the opinion that the Jets would be a terrific team this year. That may be a fact, but when Jackson says the Jets will be awesome, that’s his opinion .

Most of the problems that Barney and BTG write about are serious problems, such as the drought in California and the determination of the legislature there to continue to endorse fracking, which both he and BTG have written about eloquently and persuasively: it is madness. It is madness on a normal day, but when water is becoming increasingly precious it is double-madness. But there are other serious problems we face as a nation and as a people who seem determined to follow one another blindly off a cliff into oblivion. And, it strikes me, it comes down to two things: (1) overpopulation, which I consider the core problem at the heart of all the rest. and (2) education, which I go on and on about for a reason. If we cannot use our minds to think our way through these problems we are in serious do-do, especially if we hope to feed, and provide air to breathe and water to drink, the numberless mouths we seem determined to continue to produce.

One of the obvious signs that we are losing our ability to think is not only our inability to differentiate between facts and opinions, as noted above, but our inability to recognize the truth when it is staring us in the face. We are inundated with information from all sides and people make claims that we suspect are bloat and rhetoric, but have no grounds for rejecting. So we simply accept comfortable claims, the path of least resistance. On the contrary, we need to be suspicious of all we hear, but we also need to be able to recognize that when a scientist, let us say, who is operating within his or her domain of expertise tells us that the earth is in serious danger we need to listen and take appropriate action. This assumes that we can recognize experts when we see and hear them and that we can think our way to appropriate action when necessary. But the first step is to accept as true those facts that are undeniably true despite the fact that we find them terribly confusing or even deeply disturbing. As BTG tells us, we must beware of cognitive dissonance.

We are not in position to know everything. We need to rely on experts for many things from medical advice, to accepting the bad news from our mechanic about why our car engine goes “clunk.” And this means that we need to be able to differentiate between genuine experts and those who just pretend to be experts. This is no small order. There is a host of folks out there who claim to be experts; my rule of thumb is to suspect the lot of them and listen only when I know that the expert knows what he or she is talking about. For example, I listen when a geologist tells me that earthquakes in Oklahoma are becoming increasingly numerous, and I listen when he presents the evidence that suggests that fracking is almost certainly the cause of those earthquakes. And I tend to reject out of hand anything I hear on Fox News, just as a matter of principle.

We need to know whom to listen to and when to pay attention. We need to have a healthy skepticism and a suspicious attitude toward those who merely pretend to know. A good clue is to ask whether the speaker has a “hidden agenda.” If the “scientist” on TV wearing the white smock is being paid by Gulf Oil I suspect he is not telling me the truth. If he works at Cal Tech and is trying to live on a faculty salary, then he might have something worth hearing — even if we don’t particularly like what he is saying. The truth is not determined by what we like to hear and read. It is determined by evidence provided by impartial sources and tested by others who have no axe to grind.