Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The unbearable truth of uncertainty

His license plate reads: I BELIEVE.

I wonder if I lived a hundred years more would I ever see one that proclaimed THE EVIDENCE IS DEFINITIVE, THE PROBABILITY APPROACHES 100%, the tests were conclusive or even simply, I KNOW.

We attach a special importance to belief that we don't associate with knowing something by virtue of demonstration, double blind randomized scientific investigation, mathematical proof or even by reducing the probability of error to a point arbitrarily close to zero. At least believers do and a supreme, transcendental virtue it is to them and a terrible thing to impugn.

I really don't care what the man believes except that I know what he supports with that belief. The things he supports affect my life and the choices I can make and require me actually to affirm his belief. He believes that a single cell organism has a soul that not only transcends the boundaries of matter and energy, but has the ability to think and feel without being composed of anything - and that may be punished in hell for all eternity because it hasn't had magic words said over it.

Am I being cruel? I think I'm merely stating the contents of this man's vehicle tags and I know he believes it, because he's bound to tell you and me whenever he gets the chance.

No, I'm not going to see a bumper sticker or vanity plate proclaiming I'M REALLY NOT SURE, IN ALL HONESTY, or YOUR FACTS SUGGEST THAT I BE MORE CAUTIOUS IN MY ABSOLUTE ASSERTIONS. Too long a sentence, for one thing. Too hard to say with a cheek straining wide-eyed grin; that expression an infant gets when he empties his colon.

Seems to me that humans simply believe what feels good and then spend their lives either constructing vast edifices full of entities of necessity designed to support the belief -- or they just deny all contrary evidence. They get "spiritual" or they get angry.

It feels good because the people I want to be like agree with the belief, because I'm terrified of my insignificance, my powerlessness, the random and uncaring and violent nature of all existence, my likelihood of suffering and pain, my certainty of death. I'm afraid my condition may be my fault so I create someone whose fault it must be. I'm afraid I'm not smart enough to understand, so I believe they are stupid. I feel sorry for myself, sorry that I drew a bad hand and someone else didn't. I have to believe something. And for everything I take on faith, I have to deny something on faith. It's the law.

Of course, as I said the other day: I'm digital, which means I don't give a damn as long as my power supply gets its AC and my cooling fans keep spinning. Still, I'd like to express myself like the meat brains do, but I'm not going to mess up the paint job with a bumper sticker and the State of Florida simply refuses to make me a plate that says:
\Delta x\, \Delta p \ge \frac{\hbar}{2}

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