Flight of the White Swans

“Nature is relentless and unchangeable, and it is indifferent as to whether its hidden reasons and actions are understandable to man or not,” Galileo Galilei

As I sat across the tiny round table at the coffeehouse, I looked at Phaedrus with his fingers wrapped around his mug of latte and said to him that today will be the day that I would dismantle the world of your logic and to prove, for once and for all, that you know nothing of logic.

Keeping eye contact and awaiting his reaction, I took a sip from my mug filled with cappuccino as he sets his drink atop the hardwood table. For as long as I’ve known him, Phaedrus had been lonely. Always ready for a challenge in the realm of form, he defends his idea like how a PhD student would – with precision and fierce rebuttal. Often, when he speaks, he exudes a certain quality that blurs the line between passion, intimidation and pure stubbornness, and much less his arrogance in perceiving whatever he held is right.

Too often, in the midst of defending his point, he had forgotten the purpose of the debate– to find peace in the difference of ideals. Instead, he seeks consolidation, believing that everything can be optimised in a way which makes it technically and politically correct; forever lacking the wisdom to discern between what requires courage to change with what requires the strength to accept.

Thus it should come as no surprise that he made little friends. He knew the consequences of his actions, but for Phaedrus, the very fabric of friendship lies in the ability to accept honesty, to embrace the truth. To be loved for who he is not, is worse than to be shunned by who he is. He regard man’s duty is self development, a sentiment that I share, but the difference lies therein – he holds very little regard for people who do not share his view, and make mockery of those who he thought dwells in Plato’s cave.

For all of his knowledge accumulated over the hours spent in front of books, documentaries and the internet, it did not occur to him that his exposure was increasing in tandem with his arrogance. This further drives him into isolation. But while the world looks on with disgust and scorn, I see only a misunderstood child. Emboldened because for the need for attention, and as it usually is, the stronger the exterior, the weaker it is on the inside.

And as he sat across me, barely able to contain his joy that someone had just so openly challenges him, he smiles. Unfazed and amused, he said to me with an air of confidence and surprisingly, with a hint of unusual gentleness in his tone, to bring it.

So I start with the following metaphor: to be able to conclude that all swans are white, the sample size of white swans is irrelevant regardless of the actual amount of data collected because it takes only one black swan to disprove the hypothesis. Thus, the scientist should instead, find the black swan and disregard the amount of white.

Confirmation bias, happens when scientists are unable to look for black swans in their given time span and thus look for the quantity of white swans as evidence, in order to conclude his hypothesis that all swans are white. But in truth, the conclusion that justly reflects the reality of his findings is that, all swans are white in this duration of research, beyond that, he wouldn’t know for sure.

But this honest conclusion, speaks only failure of the researcher, for it is not conclusive and definitive. Concluding as such is suicide. Now, he is forced to defend his flawed logic to protect his career, regardless of the truth. This is why some scientific “truth” in the past, could seem like elementary mistake today.

But much like in economic models that failed us in the credit crisis, it is not so much that economics had failed us, but rather, it was the economists that had failed; failed to discern what reflects the reality of economic situation.

“Economists make the assumption that human are rational when they are not, they think when presented perfect information, men will make the right decision – when the very definition of “perfect information” and “right” decision could not even be quantified; but what has this got to do with me?”

Perhaps a little disappointed that he could not see fault in his logic, and disappointed with the angle that I had chosen, I reassert myself and found another angle.

“You are one to believe that you are right until proven wrong, am I correct to assume that you believe this mantra is foolproof?”

“Correct.”

“But how could one is proven wrong, if one is not ready to be wrong to begin with?” I said, adding that, “the fact that I have to prove, with evidence accompanied by rhetorical criticism, suggest that during this period of time while examining evidence, you would be steadfast in your belief that you are right, simply because you are not proven wrong yet.”

And here lies the contradiction, for how could one accept the possibilities that one could be wrong while examining evidence that suggest error, when one believes that his beliefs are righteous and correct until proven wrong. If you were the scientist who claims all swans are white, which is more likely – that you would examine the black swan to disprove your own theory, or to disprove mine?

He pauses. I continued.

“The bigger issue here is not confirmation bias but of logical dissertation – the point of scientific method. What really is the purpose of it?”

“The point is the find truth.”

“What is the truth?”

“That which is real.”

“What is real?”

“Reality is real.”

“What is reality?”

“That which is true and real. We are going in circles, get to your point.”

I grew impatient, and sensed that he was the same. I picked up my drink, took a long sip and stare into spaces while collecting thoughts while he, shifts his view around the coffeehouse and back on me, with an intensity in his eyes, as if to say, round two.

For as long as philosophers are around, their work had always seemed to centre on defining reality. And it was Galileo Galilei, the central figure amidst the scientific revolution made stride with logic in the form of mathematics. Reality, it seems to Galileo, is best reflected by mathematics as math is the purest form of expression. There can be no denying that two plus two is four.

And here is where it ties up. I explained, the purpose of logic is to reflect reality as it is. It is like the mirror that we look at in the morning when we brush our teeth, when we are trying to look our best on our date; that reflection has no matter and is not real. Logic is no different from the ghost that haunts our childhood. It is only a mirror, and a tool to reflect reality, not reality itself as one would believe.

Ironically, it was also Galileo who inevitably stabbed the world blind by saying to measure what is measurable and make measure what is not. Unsure of the context that Galileo meant, I take it to mean that it was to search for measurable and measure them, but it seems the world took it to the meaning of extrapolation – to give measure to what cannot be measured.

And with extrapolations, alongside confirmation bias among other logical fallacies, men distort logic, the mirror to reflect reality, which in turn distort reality, diverting our perception to raise unrealistic expectations which inevitably leads to disappointment. Worse, it blinds us into thinking the unrealistic expectations that we have are norms.

“When you try to extrapolate what you know of a person, or a subject matter,” I elaborated, “You split reality between what is here and there, inevitably destroying the values that you try to uphold yourself. Because the distortion turns the truth to be as real as you want it to be, and the manipulation of self, is manipulation of the highest order.”

This is why science lags behind nature and only works best on hindsight, because its function by itself is to reflect and reveal nature – of what is here and now. And the problem with economists, scholars, teachers, researchers, businessman etc – people who uses logic in the daily basis, sorely lack the training in the use of logical dissertation, further piling up the amount of distortion created, passing down to children as gospel truth. The problem, as always, is not with logic but with man.

Such is the example that lies in the tales that we are told, to behave accordingly; to be studious; to be a professional; to have a qualification; so as to not end up sleeping on the street, to have security, and in all purposes, to lead a “good” life. As though as there is an unspoken promise, that this would lead to the Garden of Eden; to salvation; to happiness.

To make case, they extrapolate the story of a dishwasher at the back of the restaurant; telling their children that they would end up as such should they lack the discipline in school. They extrapolate into the future of a person using random data or statistic that they observed in daily life and make inference that life would be as such if so and so are not met.

A person is good, only if a certain criteria is met, failing which, they are singled out as unproductive or even destructive members of society. As though as an ill disciplined child will end up as a bad person in the future, forgetting that darkness is only because of the absence of light. They speak as though as maturity and wisdom can only be attained at a certain time and age, not realising that all is relative.

And without even knowing the basic function of logic, how could one use it to improve one’s life as they have so boldly claimed? As you had so boldly claimed. The truth is that, extrapolation is not logic at all, but only a guideline of the possibility that the future would be as such, and at the same time would not. To say that statistic is on your side on a certain issue, is to not understand statistic at all!

Sure, perhaps 75% of smokers will die of lung cancer after prolonged exposure to cigarette, but the outcome remains that he would either die from lung cancer or will not – which in turn, the odds here are 50-50. What that statistic showed is of past data, not divine truth and certainly not logic which reflects reality.

Dejected, he stared vacantly on the table, opened his mouth as if to say something without volume, only to close it again. Unable to come up with a counter argument, he shifts the weight of his body from left to right, looked up as he faintly smiled and said: “It appears that I was wrong all this while; perhaps better to say, I am wrong until proven right.”

“The sky is blue, my friend.”

“Huh.”

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