Monday, March 3, 2014

Perils of certainty

One of the families I grew up with had a younger daughter who was somewhat troubled. She was the youngest and the family had started having troubles by the time the child was about 7 years old, which is shortly after I met them. The girl was really awkward and annoying in sort of a spoiled seeming way. She seemed oblivious to just about anything going on around her and she would do these really bizarre things or throw fits and scream like she was possessed. I hated being around her and I (along with almost everyone else who knew the family) blamed the mother, who seemed to baby her and not set any limits. Recently I spoke with the aunt of this child. The aunt said that the now 20-something-year-old girl is an engineer and is your basic Asperger's type, which to me explained a lot of what I considered unacceptably obtuse and annoying affectations when I was younger. The aunt opined that the child's mother turned out to be wiser than we all knew -- that the mother understood the child was exceptional, which is what prompted the hands-off parenting style. The theory sounded right to me and it was a relatively small thing, but in that moment I experienced a distinct paradigm shift, not just about this family but about parenting and how well we think we understand people and the world around us, compared to how little we actually know. It made me think of this NY Times op ed, "The Dangers of Certainty" (worth reading in its entirety). The article discusses the author's experience of watching The Ascent of Man as a child, and one episode in particular:

For most of the series, Dr. Bronowski’s account of human development was a relentlessly optimistic one. Then, in the 11th episode, called “Knowledge or Certainty,” the mood changed to something more somber. Let me try and recount what has stuck in my memory for all these years.

He began the show with the words, “One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an actual picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the 20th century has been to show that such an aim is unattainable.” For Dr. Bronowski, there was no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it — whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer — opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility. Such, for him, was the human condition.
***
There is no God’s eye view, Dr. Bronowski insisted, and the people who claim that there is and that they possess it are not just wrong, they are morally pernicious. Errors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible. 
***
Dr. Bronowski insisted that [physic's] principle of uncertainty was a misnomer, because it gives the impression that in science (and outside of it) we are always uncertain. But this is wrong. Knowledge is precise, but that precision is confined within a certain toleration of uncertainty . . . no physical events can ultimately be described with absolute certainty or with “zero tolerance,” as it were. The more we know, the less certain we are.

In the everyday world, we do not just accept a lack of ultimate exactitude with a melancholic shrug, but we constantly employ such inexactitude in our relations with other people. Our relations with others also require a principle of tolerance. We encounter other people across a gray area of negotiation and approximation. Such is the business of listening and the back and forth of conversation and social interaction.

For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”

The relationship between humans and nature and humans and other humans can take place only within a certain play of tolerance. Insisting on certainty, by contrast, leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.

At this point, in the final minutes of the show, the scene suddenly shifts to Auschwitz, where many members of Bronowski’s family were murdered. Then this happened. Please stay with it. This short video from the show lasts only four minutes or so.

 


It is, I am sure you agree, an extraordinary and moving moment. Bronowski dips his hand into the muddy water of a pond which contained the remains of his family members and the members of countless other families. All victims of the same hatred: the hatred of the other human being. 
***
When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades. . . . We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.

47 comments:

  1. who's your daddy?

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    1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYE3riHLptI

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  2. I am a teenager. A herd of cousins visited my home the other day, they were playing. Two of the smaller ones, about age 5, were playing with a toy. One took the toy for themselves and the other turned with a blank look and suddenly cringed and went "ahhhhh". He then ran to his mother saying so and so took his toy. He got the toy back. I hope that he isn't just a normal child manipulating his parents and is a sociopath, I really want to be able to monitor the things he does. For my amusement.

    Side note: The older of the cousins is a sociopath, but he's too smart and uninteresting.

    Does anyone else find watching a sociopath in third person interesting and fun/amusing? It's like watching a predator formulate a plan to attack a herd. Invigorating.

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    1. Seriously? if your analogy is correct then I am the proud father of a male psychopat. He will grow up and one day eat you all.

      No offcpourse not. He is a child, pure and usocialized. He hasn't been broken by social norms yet, so he does not know of any.

      Thats true for all children. Children can be vicious, manipulating terrible little devils. But at the same time they are gorgous angels. Keep watching and you'll see.

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    2. You write like I wrote when I was a teenager.

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    3. At that age, children are still operating at an earlier stage of cognitive development. Based on Piaget's theory, children at that age still operate at the "Preoperational Stage". They are typically very egocentric, and have significant difficulty in seeing things in other people's perspectives - only their own. By that account, the child in that instance is acting normally for his age.

      If you would like a simplified breakdown of Piaget's theory of cognitive development, About.com has an easy to read table for the layman to understand:

      http://psychology.about.com/od/behavioralpsychology/l/bl-piaget-stages.htm

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    4. Bob, you missed the most interesting part of Anon3:00 post...

      "Does anyone else find watching a sociopath in third person interesting and fun/amusing? It's like watching a predator formulate a plan to attack a herd. Invigorating"

      Looking forward to your comment, Bob. I very much enjoy your posts.

      OldAndWise

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    5. A comment to what, watching a sociopath? If you are entertained somehow by my responses, then it is what it is. If you are stimulated by it, as long as that stimulation doesn't result in harming me (I do not consider any responses real harm, even attacks), then I find nothing wrong or right with it.

      Acting with the assumption that the younger child is an actual sociopath, I am more intrigued by the "uninteresting" older sociopath. Sociopaths do not typically wear their sociopathy on their sleeves, at least not in older ages. It is counter-survival. The fact that you also noted him being "too smart" is an important note. If it were me, I would find him more interesting. Sociopath or not, age is an important factor for any developed responses. This is especially true when compared against a child at the preoperational stage, because their egocentric/undeveloped actions inherently mask sociopathic actions (with the exception of, as a classical example, cruelty to animals). They are, in a word, too simple.

      How old is the older cousin? I would find it more interesting to observe potential reactions and manipulations from the older child than the younger one, as they would be more developed and complex.

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    6. The older cousin is fifteen. The reason he is boring is he told me that he was a sociopath, he doesn't pretend like he is something he is not when talking to me and with other people he is very normal. He does not hatch any grand schemes that I can observe because he is too smart to get caught and does not share these things with me very often. Getting information from him about his life is so tedious. Though if I could have a birds eye view of his life and thoughts as if his life were a television show, I would definitely find him interesting.

      Mental disorders like schizophrenia, psychopathy, autism and such are common in my family. This is why I have some small expectation that he is/will be a sociopath. Also as a child he is probably going to make more mistakes and I just want to watch him.

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    7. At that age, sociopathic development is not complete. Unlike other personality disorders, it takes many years. As for cognitive development, he is still a teenager. That factor is applicable regardless of mental status.

      It is still observable. Absences or anomalies in reactions. Suggestions, or lack thereof, that lead other people to do something (or not do something). As a teenager his skill will probably be lower in manipulation due to lack of experience and knowledge, but it will still be there. If anything, it will be more apparent. However, that all depends on how observant you are.

      Also he mught not have a grand scheme because he is a sociopath. Lack of long-term commitment is part of a trait that can vary in intensity in sociopaths. That being said, if he did, it is not like he would disclose it. Obscuration is the first defense against having it stopped. No one can intentionally stop something when they don't know it is even there. If it involves people around you, you can infer his motives by observing what he says and does.

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    8. I dunno... Kids are naturally a little sociopathic at that age, some more than others. I'm a "normal" with two small children and they really are very manipulative by nature. (Not in a bad way, just an observation.) Sociopaths carry these traits into adulthood while normals have their more selfish tendencies somewhat curtailed by the needs of the group. Watch this kid in a few years and then make a judgement.

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  3. The difference is, though, who the German people made into a
    "God." Not the definate article, a Jewish preacher from Nazerath
    but an embittered street agitior from Linz Austria in 1932.
    The German's were proud ennagram 6's, who suffered much
    emotional truma about what direction to hang up a spool of
    toilet paper. They hated decision making. So, a self-assured
    demogouge who spoke with absolute certitude, was exactly
    what they were looking for.
    It is not "God" who is at fault. It is making falible humans INTO
    God that is at fault.

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  4. The holocaust was a hoax. Just take a look at the gas chambers... The whole thing is a joke.

    The Germans treated them well, according to several accounts.

    Unfortunately, most of the scum survived, and lives on as a parasite on our society.

    After the parasite consumes its host, it will finally turn on itself.

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  5. I've often wondered when mental illness started. Modern humans (anatomically modern Homo sapiens) have existed for about 200,000 years. And before that archaic Homo sapiens 400,000 years ago and so forth beyond that. The process of encephalization (brain mass vs total body mass) directly relates to an animal's level of intelligence and defines us a modern humans. Did mental illness as we define it now come with increased brain size? Did it always exist? Is there any way we could possibly know?

    MelissaR.

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    1. Additionally, infanticide was common among early human, some estimates are as high as 50%, due to food shortages. I wonder if a child who was perceived as different in some way would fall victim to infanticide or later become ostracized and left to starve.

      MelissaR

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    2. It's not just food shortages, but also the human birthing process and very long development periods after birth. An animal typically needs only a few months to a few years until they can independently survive. A proto-human needed many years to be strong and capable enough.

      As for mental illness, that is a tricky question. It is theorized that animals are capable of mental illness, based on atypical behavior. Unfortunately outside of observation of extreme behaviors, you can not question an animal. However in nature, maladapted behavior leads to early death, while in humans it does not due to societal safeguards. It's harder to examine.

      In nature, physical and mental disabilities is disadvantageous and gets weeded out. In human society, it gets supported.

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  6. Absolute certainty of what is right leaves no room to consider what is wrong. One of the advantages of science is falsifiability - a prerequisite in the design of any experiment or theory that allows it to be tested as wrong. You are not just welcomed, but encouraged, to question what is accepted. By doing this, it eventually is replaced with something better. It improves.

    Why religion doesn't support being wrong is an odd thing. If God exists, shouldn't we question our interpretations and motives? If God is a certainty, aren't we being arrogant to suggest we are certain to? It is not because God says so, but I said so.

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    1. One of the most profound things a professor said in one of my classes in college was: I'm more afraid and less trusting of people who say "I know" than of people who say "I don't know". I'm okay with what other people believe or don't believe until the line is crossed where they assert their beliefs upon me and it affects or has the potential to affect my life.

      MelissaR

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    2. But are you not falling into the trap where you will not welcome being wrong? To be willing to be wrong, so you can improve off of it?

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    3. Yes I have been wrong and there are probably some things I believe that are wrong. I'm not sure if it's a matter of improving or changing an opinion. I see it as a progression of changing course; taking what was known, adjusting, and moving forward from there.

      MelissaR

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    4. @ MelissaR

      I relate 100% to your attitude towards "the knowing" types. I feel more comfortable around people who candidly admit they don't know something.

      I often deploy this tactic myself.

      What's strange though (to me at least) is that I often don't know whether I'm using it as a tactic to disarm people, or whether in fact I genuinely don't know...;)

      Zerothian<

      Good thead this.

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    5. Sometimes as a defensive measure to protect their hubris, people try to appear humble. It downplays the hubris.

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    6. By its very nature, hubris can't really be downplayed. Camouflaged, maybe.

      Zerothian<

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    7. That is the usage of downplaying. "To make (something) seem smaller or less important." In that, it is camouflaged.

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  7. What is an unable human? Are we like the tiny termites, so frail and useless alone, but mighty and incomparable as a group of industrious hive builders. I have yet to meet someone who made everything he has by himself. The masses of ubiquitous apelings is infinite and are lured to the Pathocrats on a rythmic basis. They don't believe in uncertainty because they can't conceive such complicated ideas. How can you explain to a simple minded that truth is irrational?

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    1. You're a fucking idiot.

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    2. I'm crying now...

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  8. As a psychopath, I am skeptical of what people say. I watch what they do. When I look at what the Jews have done throughout their history - things like killing off their ethnic enemies mercilesslyor betraying their host countries - I figure there's more to Jews than violin-playing Auschwitz survivors who like to play scrabble.

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    1. I think most humans are like what you describe. Its a them and us way of thinking. True empathy and trustworthyness is shared with those you bond with, your group. The others are objects. Same goes for Jews or anyone.

      As an empath I can relate to that. If you were a chld, you could look me in the eyes and play a game of innocence, I would feel empathy for you and help you rather then kill you. As a fully qualified enemy, I would feel nothing for you and kill you slowly if I had the chance and legal rights to do so.

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    2. Interesting responses. The dichotomy (or lack thereof) is intriguing.

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    3. @SomeOne

      Interesting (or perhaps not) that an empath would (rather contradictorily) kill a sociopath slowly, yet claim to "feel nothing" while doing so.

      In which case, why kill slowly, unless the purpose of killing slowly was to gain purposeful enjoyment from the act of killing. The only other reason for killing slowly is incompetence at killing.

      Logic was never an empath USP, that's for sure;)

      Me? I'd rather avoid killing. I'd only kill if I really, really had to. And that would be after I'd exhausted all other possiblities. Be assured though that if I had to kill, then I'd do it quickly, efficiently, and with no passion whatsoever.

      Zerothian<

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    4. It's done slowly to inflict suffering. There is no other reason to kill slowly.

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  9. I'm never 100% certain of anything. If someone asks me a question or I'm offering my thoughts, I always include a disclaimer that I'm sharing what I think, not what I know to be true. I'll throw out bullshit percentages like "I'm 95% sure, or I'm 99% sure". When I have that level of certainty, though, I do tend to be correct.

    A mind is an absolutely awful thing to have. Mine creates problems out of nothingness and won't rest until they are resolved. Is that madness, or just boredom? Is there a difference?

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  10. The nazis were not a huge crowd of psychopaths, they were normal citizens, many with firm christian faith. It does not take much for "do-gooders" to become savages: peer pressure combined with somebody with authority and an "other" powerless group which everything is blamed upon (if this group is easily identified by say wearing prisoners striped clothes and smell bad the "do-gooders" savagery will start appearing more quickly). "Wilding" I think is an american term for such stuff?

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    1. Starvation is also a good motivator.

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    2. Don't forget mob mentality. It diffuses and decentralizes responsibility of regular individuals when acting as part of a group, because it removes the individual.

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  11. That study often referred to, with groups of normal people giving others (simulated, not real) electric punishment is very scary: proves that most everyday people in every profession can become ringleaders in torture-dungeons, very few just said no and walked away..

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    1. Empaths, most of them?

      Zerothian<

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    2. The "electric punishment" experiment actually involved actors. The experimenters gave instructions to the (true) subject, telling them without encouragement to press a button to give (fake) electric shocks to another person (who was unknowningly an actor). There was a length of buttons, and the subject would be instructed to go up the length, with each one (supposedly) going up in power. The actor would act appropriately while going up, as if from a mild shock to a severe shock.

      Some subjects would object and stop, but a significant number of others would not. The experiment was an excellent test of obedience to authority (in this case, the authority being the experimenter). The subject had complete control to give shocks, or not give shocks - they were not forced or coerced to do it.

      This was known as the Milgram experiment. You can read up on the original experiment (from back in 1961) or watch a more recent replication of the experiment on YouTube (which showcased on BBC).

      Wiki on original experiment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

      Documentary on new replicated experiment (BBC): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcvSNg0HZwk

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    3. Quick disclaimer if you watch the YouTube video. The actor/experimenter replies with basically neutral lines - a restatement of the requirements of the experiment without actually being pushed.

      By the way, an experiment with actual electric shocks (instead of actors and fake shocks) would be both illegal and considered unethical. Psychological experiments must pass an ethical assessment before a panel before being allowed to be conducted. The Milgram experiment - like many experiments in the 1960s and earlier - used more lax rules (and in some institutions, there were no ethical rules). This is echoed in other controversial experiments, such as the Stanford Prison experiment (which you can also look up and read/youtube). The recently replicated experiment linked above is a rarity.

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    4. There are numerous videos on the Stanford Prison experiment, but if you want a reputable one, there is the BBC Documentary on it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYv3J12pARM

      It should be noted that Dr. Zimbardo, the experimenter, is an expert on the field. He was both the president of the American Psychological Association, and testified as an expert regarding Abu Ghraib.

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  12. I have jury duty tomorrow. Any suggestions as to how to get dismissed? I have some in mind but I'm open to having as many possible reasons on hand.

    MelissaR

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    1. MellissaR, I have read some of your posts. Go for it. Don't avoid the Jury duty! You will enjoy and learn from it and share the wisdom with this blog's readers.

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    2. I was out of state on vacation when I was called to jury duty. They're probably not going to check, I don't think they did with me.

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    3. It turned out that most of the jurors for today were dismissed by 10:15am because there were not that many trials scheduled. I've had jury duty before many years ago and was on a one day trial. I can think of better things to do with my time since I've already had the experience.

      MelissaR

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  14. Over 30 years ago I saw the entire Bronowski series at NC Governor's School (given the gravitas implications of such a name, I can see why the administrators wanted us to see the series). I later read the book and watched the series again on PBS. But I really missed the full meaning of the episode until this blog.

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