Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Oscar Wise and the unbearable subjectivity of reasoning

So, I was out the other day, with Than and a few friends of ours, and Than and our friend Ted sat there arguing about something they both agreed upon, as per usual. It took them a bit more than it usually does to realise that they were just saying the same thing in different words and were basically arguing semantics.

The whole debate regarded the way years are measured when we're talking about age and when we're talking about calendar years, with the only difference being when we celebrate what year. Ted was insisting that they're measured exactly the same way, since the same arithmetic principles are used in both cases, while Than said it's the other way around, since we celebrate the beginning of a calendar year on New Year's Day, but the passage of a year on our birthday. And the simple fact that the one said "it's the same" while the other said "it's different" was the point of a 20-minute-or-so disagreement.

So, ok, if we assume that point zero was when Jesus was born (which another friend of ours in the group desperately tried to point out that it was not, in fact, when Jesus was actually born, since it has been determined arbitrarily a few centuries later, which we all were obviously aware of, but it was not our point at the time), then by the time baby Jesus celebrated his first birthday, it would start counting as year 2 on the calendar. And if there were calendars on the wall back then, when Mary was out with her baby carriage (again, if there were baby carriages back then) and an old lady saw the baby, the following dialogue would ensue:

The old lady would go "oooh, what a sweet baby, and what a cute little beard it has... is it a boy or a girl?," Mary would reply "a boy," and then the old lady would say "how nice... and how old is he?." Mary would answer "well, he's one year old since last week," so the fact would then be that if anyone looked at their calendar on the wall, the year shown would be year 2, and not year 1 as we may have expected. The reason for this being that we start counting a calendar year from its first day, but a year of age when the year has passed. Strange for some, natural according to counting and celebration conventions to people like Ted, Mathematician and USTV guru.

But the wonderful thing here is how long they disagreed before realising that they didn't really disagree in the first place. And the even more amazing thing is how often it happens with the two of them, usually lasting for no more than a couple of minutes with a drumroll backing. So, the moral of our story really is that the pure and simple truth, as another friend of mine, Oscar Wilde, once said, is rarely pure and never simple.

Which brings me to the reason why I am such a fan of the scientific method and of logical reasoning according to convention. People think and talk in so many different ways, that if two people, both of which I consider amazingly smart in stupendously different ways, disagree or think that they disagree so often, it cannot be assumed that we all speak the same language, even if we use the same pool of words. There must be some set of rules as to what counts as true and how, in order for humanity to be able to talk about things, since we're all basically cursed to have to communicate things other than "I'm hungry" or "I love you" like quasi-normal animals need to. And even then, whatever we learn, there must be some way to record it and pass it on, so as to be able to say that we know more today than our forefathers knew a few years ago, some set of rules to test its truth and to realise how we got there, in order to map out the theoretical territories we all waddle across, so as to avoid traps, pitfalls and going round in circles if other people before us have pointed them out somehow.

So, in the sea of abstract thinking, sailing in a boat of my own subjectivity, science and logic are my only oars.

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