Here Thar Be Monsters!

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2.12.16

Doctor Livingstone I Assume

Maybe you remember that old Star Trek episode called, I, Mudd?  It's the one where a businessman takes the crew hostage, to be guarded by a bunch of androids.  The crew starts dong a bunch of crazy things that cause the androids to shut down because the antics don't make sense, and the crew escapes once again.

This is what happens to my wife when she asks me something like, "Is sour cream still goot [sic] or no?"  I reply, "If the cream is already sour, exactly what criteria are we using to determine if it is good?  If you mean is it green yet, then I have to say it's still good."  I mean, the cream was sweet and fresh at one time, but it was allowed to go sour.  It smells sour and tastes sour, and by most standards that would not be good.

It's amazing how many assumptions we make in our daily lives that heavily influence our thinking.  What's more, our inner scale for judging the real world slides around, depending on what set of initial assumptions we make about a particular subject.

Take the anti-Ahok rally in Jakarta today.  Most people here could care less about Ahok, but this morning I can hear people running around the neighborhood yelling, "There's free food at the Ahok rally!  Let's go!"  If you have a hidden agenda to bring down the current administration and install your personal allies, this is good.  If you are a typical Indonesian who thinks anything free is better than nothing and you will go to any expense to get it, this is good.  If you are reasonably intelligent and like Ahok, this is bad.  It's all relative.

By the way, we really need heavy rains in central Jakarta today, so send some our way, because normally this would be a bad thing, but today it will break up a mass demonstration before it can get violent, and that's good.

Another good example of this phenomenon is the Trump Wave.  Most of the people who support Trump do so because they are sick and tired of corporate interests running the government against the interests of most everyday folks.  So, they get behind a man who is a walking brand name and quintessential CEO of a marketing empire.  Is this a kind of fire break?  To fight a forest fire, you start another fire?  Again, it's a case of assumptions, not to mention a lot of pretty words, coloring decisions.

Just because an apple is red and succulent-looking on the outside doesn't mean it is not shot through with worms.

We assume that vaccines work because...well, gosh, we've never had polio, right?  We assume a restaurant makes healthy food because they passed health inspection, right?  We assume the Sun will rise tomorrow because it has for the previous 20,158 days we've been alive, and by all accounts it has for a long time before we were here, though we assume that those records are really as old as we think they are.

When it comes right down to it, we actually know very little.  Basically, we know what we have experienced, but that is only valid for time already past.  The current status of what we know is just what we see, feel, smell, hear, and taste right this very moment.  All of that could change in the next minute, everything outside the range of our senses is unknown, and all past experience is based solely on our memories, which are provably dodgy sorts of things.

In fact, we are completely clueless.  What we know right now is not provable unless we have someone else to confirm it at the same time, but then we could both be under the same illusion of assumptions.

As Ram Dass exhorted us back in the day, "Be here now."  However, if you have ever really tried to live in the Eternal Now, you know it is virtually impossible to function in our collective cultures.  We actually need an entire truck-load of assumptions just to turn off the alarm in the morning, not the least of which that we can measure 'time' and that a morning will come for us to turn off the alarm.

Point of fact: assumptions are the foundation of our shared reality.  It cannot and does not exist without the basic assumptions that inform most of what we "know."

Perhaps you are one of us hippie-types who read Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land?  In the book, Heinlein posits a class of legal functionaries called "fair witnesses."  These people are trained to live in the Here-Now.  One of the main characters, Jubal Harshaw, demonstrates how it works when he asks his personal Fair Witness, "What color is that house?"  She responds, "It's white on this side."  In other words, she made no assumptions about the color of the house on the unseen sides, and reported only what she could directly experience.

What Heinlein failed to do, through his character, is point out that she assumed that what she experienced as the color 'white' is the same as everyone else who looked at it.

As I type this, I assume that there is a magic machine called a "computer" in front of me.  I can see the screen make squiggles that I assume mean something to objective observers.  I can feel the keys as I type.  I can smell the ozone coming from the heated components inside.  I assume that when I click "Publish," this machine will send a signal to some far off server that will render my experiences into something others can share.  I will only have some confirmation of these assumptions if the hit counter goes nuts and/or if someone sends a response, which I assume will be from a real human being somewhere else on what I assume is a planet that we co-inhabit.

As you can see, this line of deductive reasoning can get rather detailed and one can easily despair of trying to ascertain the Truth of any matter.  It is, however, a very good exercise in recognizing and coming to grips with the vast number of assumptions that we make moment by moment.

Many of the long-time readers here appreciate that I take a slightly different view of things, and I do that by first checking my assumptions, and those of other commentators, to see what - if anything - has been overlooked by our shared assumptions.  I attempt to point out that which has not been considered in the general discourse because we all made some common assumptions.

I do not claim to be special, or even a leader, in this effort.  I am simply trying to think clearly and to understand what assumptions I make about my daily experience.  With a bit of luck, I can share those observations with a wider audience who may - or may not - also appreciate these observations.

My wife just reported that most of the shops at the local bazaar that are owned by ethnic Chinese are closed.  This is because they have assumed that the Muslim-based mass demonstrations will erupt in violence, and that the violence will likely be directed towards ethnic Chinese.  These assumptions are based on either past experience in 1998 and other occasions, or on reports of those events.  Thus, they assume that it is better to stay home, unless their shop is close to where they live.  This last assumption is based on their perception of how fast they can get home in an emergency.

Yes, life is full of assumptions, and for the most part, we can't function without them.  It is important to analyze and understand what our assumptions are, so that we can avoid mistakes because of them.  We are much less likely to be caught off-guard when we are mindful of our foundational assumptions, and are much less prone to panic and more likely to think clearly.

In fact, I don't know for sure that I will be alive to finish this article.  I only assume, based on past experi...

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