Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Subject of Objectivity

Ever get into one of those discussions where, despite an intense volley of back-and-forth points, the conversation usually ends with, "Look, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Let's just agree to disagree". Or, you get people who insist that, "Truth is relative. That's your truth, not my truth".

Polarisation is something that most people can understand pretty easily.

Black vs White, Good vs Evil, Male vs Female, Up vs Down, "A Current Affair" vs real journalism... you get the picture?

Then you have what I call the "Shades of Grey"-er's.

Generally speaking, SOG'ers think that:
  • Good and evil don't really exist

  • Everything is relative

  • Absolutes are bad and miss the bigger picture

  • Truth is always "in between" the opposites.

Etc, etc... The typical Post-Modernist is one way of putting it, although they might vehemently deny being postmodernists quite loudly.

Ironically, both these viewpoints are opposites in a sense as well. Yet, in my opinion, they are reconcilable. Why not have Black, White AND Shades of Grey? I think this can be summed up quite poetically by the saying, "There is Good, Evil, and the specific situation that determines which is which".

Of course, this point of view does not sit very well with the "Morality Police" who belive that "moral relativism" is a cancer that is eating away at the heart of society. Not does it sit very well with the SOG'ers and postmodernists who declare that taking an absolutist stand on any issue is akin to fascism.

Logically, in allowing for the existence of absolutes, one must try to at least hypothesize what they might be. Good and Evil? God and Satan? Well, that's opening up a philosophical and theological can of worms right there. Personally, I think that the terms "Good" and "Evil" are probably too subjective, despite my reference to the previous quote. How many different popular figureheads around the world have defined Good and Evil by their own rules? To suit their own agendas and belief systems?

A better description of the proposed "Universal Absolutes" could be:

  • Chaos vs Order

  • Entropy vs Negentropy

  • Subjectivity vs Objectivity

This might be similar in some ways to the Chinese concept of Yin/Yang.

Of course, to define such things as "Universal Absolutes" is to give them meaning in the same sense as the laws of physics. They are not "concepts" or "ideas" - they are actually real principles that operate in the Universe. If that is the case, surely they can be observed and measured in some way?

Physicist John Wheeler wrote:
"We had this old idea, that there was a universe out there, and here is man, the observer, safely protected from the universe by a six-inch slab of plate glass. Now we learn from the quantum world that even to observe so minuscule an object as an electron we have to shatter the plate glass; we have to reach in there... So the old word observer - simply has to be crossed off the books, and we must put in the new word participator."
I think most people would agree that they observe things. Perception of some sort is part and parcel of what it means to exist as a human being. Another thing relating to this is that human beings are made up of atoms, molecules etc.. the same "stuff" as the Universe we observe. So, in real terms, we can say that the Universe is observing itself, because we are part of the Universe.

When one considers that people have many different points of view, (for instance, how good a job George W. Bush is doing as Prez of the US) then it is also logical to conclude that the Universe does not view itself in exactly the same way all the time. We arrive now at the concept of Subjectivity - the fact that people see things in different ways.

A harder question is - What is Objectivity?

As a working hypothesis, how about like this: Since subjectivity is derived from a subset of the Universe viewing itself, perhaps objectivity could be described as the entire set of the Universe viewing itself?

This is all one huge can of worms right here. The logical conclusion of the above is that the entire Universe is capable of perceiving itself, which leads to questions of the Universe being a sentient entity. The word "God" usually pops up around here somewhere.

Interestingly enough, I came across this idea on a news site I regularly read - "Signs of the Times". In the Halloween 2004 edition, Laura Knight-Jadczyk writes:
In the past three years, as I noted at the beginning of today's page, we have made some considerable progress on our mandate of discovering what really makes reality tick and how does humanity fit into it. Much of this work is pure science - physics and mathematics - but I'm not going to give you the formulas or the computer simulation codes, I'm going to explain it to you in simple terms.

Our universe seems to be made up of matter/energy and of consciousness.

Matter/energy by itself "prefers", as it seems, a chaotic state.

Matter/energy by itself doesn't even have a concept of "creation" or "organization". It is the consciousness that brings to life these concepts and by its interaction with matter pushes the universe towards chaos and decay or towards order and creation.

This phenomenon can modeled mathematically and simulated on a computer using EEQT (Event Enhanced Quantum Theory). Whether EEQT faithfully models the interaction of consciousness with matter, we do not know; but chances are that it does because it seems to describe correctly physical phenomena better than just the orthodox quantum mechanics or its rival theories (Bohmian mechanics, GRW etc.)
In the same article, LKJ quotes a French mathematician and astronomer named Pierre Laplace:
We must regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. Consider an intelligence which, at any instant, could have a knowledge of all forces controlling nature together with the momentary conditions of all the entities of which nature consists. If this intelligence were powerful enough to submit all this data to analysis it would be able to embrace in a single formula the movements of the largest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atoms; for it, nothing would be uncertain; the future and the past would be equally present to its eyes.
She then writes:
Certainly, such an intelligence as Laplace describes would be "Godlike," you agree? And certainly, no one of us human beings is capable of such "seeing," you will also agree. However, what does seem to be true is that this is a significant clue to the solutions to the pressing issues of our day: knowledge that leads to awareness.

Here I will insert a major clue: As the brain interacts with its environment, synaptic circuits combine to form synaptic maps of the world perceived by the senses. These maps describe small segments of that world - shape, color, movement - and these maps are scattered throughout the brain. As the brain's synaptic network evolves, beginning at birth - or even before - these maps process information simultaneously and in parallel.

Based on our synaptic maps of the world, we are enabled to have a more or less objective view of reality.
Wow. Where to start with this doozy? I might leave the issue of the role our brains have in perception for a later post, as the key point I want to consider here is of the Universe being an objective reality that does exist.

So if I pick up a rock and drop it, and I perceive that it falls to the ground, this can be said to be an objective perception. If I believe that it has just floated up into space, despite the fact that it's sitting on the ground in front of me, then that can be said to be a subjective perception.

This is all well and good for rock-watching, but things become a little less clear-cut when discussing things like politics, religion, sex, or any other topic liable to have people insisting on the existence of floating rocks.

Or maybe rocks can float?

I wonder what the Universe sees when it looks at itself? Surely a lot of things a hell of a lot more interesting than "Reality" Television. (Or probably any television).

Anyway, I think that's a pretty good definition of Truth - the actual state of the Universe as observed by itself, not by individual human beings engaged in creative doublethink, which, (let's be honest here), we do pretty much all the time. Are we capable of seeing ourselves as the Universe sees us - knowing the Truth about ourselves? And from there seeing the truth about others, even whole societies and ultimately ourselves as a planet-bound species?

I'll leave those ones for you to ponder.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Leader of the Expensive World?

Uh oh. Eyes are beginning to shift; carefully scanning the area for any other kind of subject matter to focus the attention on.

That's right folks - we're going to talk politics.

I can see the mental version of the tea-cozy slipping over a few brains already. Well, guess what?


How, you may ask?

It's quite simple - the US economy is near breaking point.

"Oh God NO! Not the Economy too! What did I do to deserve getting cornered by this guy? Can't he see that I'm just trying to finish my hotdog in peace?"

Well, wakey-wakey Sunshine, because that hotdog is going to cost a hell of a lot more in the future, especially now that George W. Bush has been inaugurated for his second term as US President.

To be perfectly honest with you, I'm not a fan. Call me crazy; call me a lefty liberal; call me whatever the hell you want, but there's something about that guy that strikes me as just plain dodgy.

Is it the endless lies?
Is it the whole Middle-East invasion?
Is it his religious fundamentalism?
Perhaps it's his past history of drug abuse and alcoholism?
Or is it just his grotesque butchering of the English language?

Maybe all of the above?

In any case, he is currently accountable for the US economy, which is disappearing down the toilet. Recent comments by Stephen Roach, chief economist for Morgan Stanley, are grim indeed on the subject.

To finance its current account deficit with the rest of the world, he said, America has to import $2.6 billion in cash. Every working day.
That is an amazing 80 percent of the entire world's net savings.
Sustainable? Hardly.
Meanwhile, he notes that household debt is at record levels.
Twenty years ago the total debt of U.S. households was equal to half the size of the economy. Today the figure is 85 percent.

Wha..? 85%?!?
This means that only 15% of the US economy is actually made up of stuff. You know, manufactured goods - real commodities or products that people want to buy. The rest is the population taking out loans from banks to purchase said stuff. The problem is, the stuff most people in the US are buying is made in other countries (mostly in China and other East-Asian countries). Another problem is that the US is not paying for these goods in the currencies of said nations - it pays for them in US dollars. It can do this because the US dollar is the de facto world reserve currency, and thus other nations are happy to sit on piles of it in their own central banks because it is always presumed to be worth something.

Not a bad scam, eh? If your money is presumed valuable by others, then you can just print as much of it as you want and effectively get goods and services for free. Of course, no scam lasts forever. If world confidence in the US dollar should drop, trading partners will stop accepting payment in US dollars. Investors will stop purchasing US Treasury debt paper (Bonds, currency etc).

Could such a thing happen? The initial signs seem to suggest it. Business Week suggests a few key factors to watch.

"Rubbish", I hear you say. "If Bush and the big guns in the Treasury can see this, then they'd do something about it".

Well, according to an article in the New York Times, Bush plans to reduce the Federal deficit by half by 2009. In the meantime however, the deficit is expected to rise in order to help fund the continuing war in Iraq. Sounds like he's saying, "Things will get better - just bear with us a bit longer".

Do you believe him? That's up to you. Personally, I'd recommend you start saving a bit of extra cash now if you still want a few extra hotdogs at your future BBQs...

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Cognitive Dissonance and the BBQ

So what really lies behind this idea of BBQ-stopping?

Perhaps it's the theory of Cognitive Dissonance?

This is a pretty cool theory coined by a guy named Leon Festinger back in '57. In a nutshell, it basically means that when someone has an opinion (say, for instance, that John Howard - current Prime Minister of Australia - is a good and noble leader) and they come into contact with facts that contradict that belief (for instance, proof that John Howard is actually a dishonest serial liar) then it produces a kind of mental "pain" in which which one idea must be rejected or "modified" in some way so that the opposing thoughts (cognitions) no longer clash (create dissonance), or a different perspective taken which resolves the overall paradox.

For instance, in the example above the person in question can reconcile the two cognitions by taking the attitude that John Howard might be a dishonest serial liar, but he is doing it "for the good of the nation". This allows the two apparently contradictory points of view to coexist.

Festinger proposed that cognitive dissonance was a basic stimulus, like hunger and thirst, and a person would instinctively seek out a way to return to the initial "comfortable" state (consonance).

Sounds like a BBQ-stopper, doesn't it? If everyone is having a good time and an argument breaks out, generally other friends or family members will try and "smooth things over" so the BBQ can return to its previous friendly atmosphere.

Of course, Festinger's theory is not without its critics. Some psychologists argue that cognitive dissonance cannot be disproven, as it can be argued that any failed experiment did not use a strong enough stimulus to produce dissonance in the subject. Daryl J. Bem reinterprets Festinger's results to suggest that the idea of cognitive dissonance is just an unnecessary complication and that attitude adjustment can be explained via self-perception.

For instance, say person B tells person A that he doesn't like onion rings on his burgers. Person C overhears this, and says he will give B one dollar if he eats a burger with heaps of onion rings on it. A then watches B eat the onion-laden burger. Rather than assuming B has "forced himself" to like the onion rings to escape cognitive dissonance, A just assumes that B didn't really mind onion rings that much to begin with.

What Bem is saying is that B perceived the exact same thing of himself that A did. B thought "Hey! I've got no reason to eat an onion-laden burger for one dollar, yet here I am doing it anyway. I guess I like onions after all!"

My biggest criticism of this idea is that it assumes people are constantly SEEING their own behaviour, and they draw the same conclusions from their own behaviour that they would draw from anothers. Anyone who is familiar with the ideas of Georges Gurdjieff or other such esoteric systems will find this claim to be highly improbable.

Personally, I find this theory explains quite a lot about my own observations of human behaviour, whether at BBQs or otherwise. It's not the whole enchilada by any stretch of the imagination, but does provide an interesting perspective on the reactions of people to unfamiliar ideas and events.

Mmmm... burgers with onions...

Friday, January 14, 2005

Why would you want to stop a BBQ?

Well, I don't. Sometimes it just kind of happens that way though.

Before I go any further, I should explain exactly just what the phrase "BBQ Stopper" actually means. It's Australian slang for a social incident or inappropriate comment that causes everyone at the BBQ to stop talking and look at you in a half-embarrassed, half-accusing kind of way.

So you don't know what a BBQ is either? Try here for starters.

In Australia, the BBQ is social ritual second to none. It typically involves large slabs of beef, pork and/or fish, an esky (or more commonly, several eskies) full of beer or other alcoholic beverages, a few friends and perhaps a bit of loud music. If there's a pool and it's a hot summer's day, so much the better. Typical kick-off time is about one in the afternoon, but the more dedicated BBQ fans have been known to start in the wee hours of the morning. As for when they finish... well, that's a completely different kettle of fish altogether.

So what type of thing is likely to stop a BBQ? Well, as always, it depends on the company. Conversations about politics and religion are definitely in the top ten. Over-loud mentions of particular medical conditions or sexual inclinations can do it as well. Fights, property damage and being an over-enthusiastic supporter of a local sporting team (not necessarily in that chronological order) can do it as well.

Personally, I find the term "BBQ Stopper" perfectly representative of a particular psychological quirk that I have observed in all sorts of people. This "quirk" is kind of like an "auto-shutdown" mechanism that automatically kicks in if a certain subject is deemed too "uncomfortable" for the person's psyche.

Now, by "shutdown" I don't necessarily mean that they stop talking and walk away (although that can, and does, happen). The "shutdown" can be manifested as aggressive argument, fluent change of subject in the middle of a sentence, uncomfortable silences... all kinds of interesting reactions. The general tendency above all is that a certain "switch" has been thrown in their mind. They go from being actively engaged in the conversation to metaphorically displaying a neon sign on their forehead that spells out the sentence, "I DON'T WANT TO KNOW".

They're talking away, drink in hand, happily enjoying their BBQ, and you just stopped it.

As you can probably gather, BBQ-stopping does not tend to have a net postive benefit to one's social status. So what is the point, you may ask?

Well, that's kind of why I set up this blog. To explore the whole idea of BBQ-stopping in all its psychological, socio-cultural, esoteric, practical, political and philosophical glory.

Zen and the Art of BBQ-stopping? Of course not - I'd probably be sued for trademark infringement.

And in case you were wondering, yes, "Mr Whippy" is in fact a nom de plume. I don't actually own an ice-cream van, nor drive one for a living. Although I certainly do dream of the day I can climb to those lofty heights. I actually work in I.T.

Whoops. Sorry about that.

Let's just forget I said that and go grab another burger, shall we?