headshot of George Dinwiddie with books he's written

iDIA Computing Newsletter

May 2022

What is something you're absolutely sure is true?

Recently I asked on Twitter, "What is something you're absolutely sure is true?" I found the results interesting. The answers fell into several categories.

A number of replies reached for things that are true by definition, mostly in the realm of math or logic. All of these replies presumed agreement on the ground rules of the statement. The reply of "¬⊥" presumes that one is using a common symbolism for formal logic. Another, "!false" makes use of programming constructs that will work in some languages, but not universally. One response was that "A prime amount of anything can't be arranged into a rectangle of equal rows." This had to later be amended to specify that they defined a row and containing more than one element. The case of a rectangle of a single row wasn't considered, nor the case of "anything" being arranged as fractional things. One reply chose the generic category "tautologies," ignoring how slippery it is to intentionally create a specific one.

Another batch of answers tried to demonstrate the truth of existence, starting with René Descartes' logic of "I think, therefore I am." This is perhaps as close as a philosopher can come to certainty. Other expressions of existence that were offered are perhaps slightly shakier—breathing, self-awareness. Claims of truth based on self-awareness remind me of the Emo Philips line, "I used to think that the human brain was the most fascinating part of the body. Then I realized, whoa, 'look what's telling me that'." While I'm a big proponent of self-awareness, I feel uncomfortable basing truth and existence on that foundation. I might disappear in a moment of self-deception!

There were answers that skipped over existence, and found truth in the inevitability of death. We've certainly seen the ultimate de-animation of bodies. If we take Descartes at his work and treat thought as the ultimate proof of existence, then we step into shakier ground. There are many who believe that the end of the life we observe is not the end of existence, but a transformation into some other existence. Another answer avoided that rabbit hole taking Ben Franklin's route that "in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." And reorgs, added another.

This brings us to another category of answer—expectations from experience. I had to laugh at "No matter what a child asks to eat for dinner, once you make it, they will want something else." I don't see it as "truth," but it does touch my past experience, as does "That if I wear white whilst eating pasta, I will indeed splash sauce on the front." These are wonderful because they align with how humans learn things. We observe, and we make inductive inferences from those observations. As Kathryn Schulz points out in Being Wrong - Adventures in the Margin of Error, our beliefs are probabilistically true rather than necessarily or absolutely true. This means that they also have a probability of being false.

And that brings me to the last category I'm going to discuss here—uncertainty. We are sure that we will be wrong, though we don't know when, and probably won't realize it at the time. Our senses can fool us, and our observations may not reflect what happened. Our memories can fail us, and corrupt what we think we saw or heard. We are good at developing a narrative to explain what happened, given what we think we know, but our story may not correspond with other explanations for the same events. We fool ourselves with many cognitive and emotional biases. When we think about what we know for sure, it's that we know little to nothing for sure. Yet in practice, we act very confidently on our beliefs. We call our beliefs, truths, and, for us, they are. As Kathryn Schulz says, being wrong feels exactly the same as being right.

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool." — Richard Feynman

While there is some power in bravado supported by false confidence, it seems to me that any somewhat rational person can find benefit in correcting their errors. Usually we'd like to do so before others notice them, so that we don't lose face. In any event, one of the most powerful ways of learning is to make a mistake, discover it, and correct it. You'll learn much more from that than from accidentally getting the right answer the first time.

/signed/ George

P.S. I've been doing a lot of research and thinking on ways to discover my errors, and I'd love to talk with others to share my ideas, get feedback, and learn yours methods. If you're willing to have that conversation with me, use my Discovery Session scheduling to set up a Zoom call to share ideas.

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