The Thought Tower

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder

It’s often been said: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Word to the wise, indeed.

But when we say that, what exactly do we mean? Here’s a brief story that spells out my (non-original) view of the picture we might have in our heads.

(Btw, I am going a lot with topics that I’m interested in, but if you reading this have a suggestion, I can consider that too.)

Here we go!

>>

The tower surged into the sky, panels of stone, rising in Stonehenge arches into the clouds like Babel.

Each megalithic brick planed smooth, depicting words in archaic language, to the gods? Of truth? – no one knew yet. They had recently come across it – the Jenga Tower, the ninth wonder of the world.

Without supporting buttresses, or even a circular and three-dimensional structure, it was able to soar twenty thousand and twenty two stories into the sky, dwarfing the Albine plain beneath it. Across the salt flats, it looked like the blocks were simply lifted and placed with the deftness of a cat one on top of another, in perfect alignment – there were no cracks.

The historian and archaeologist, Richard Maddon, peered closely at the strange inscriptions that marked every stone, trying to balance against the blowing of the wind, ten stories up, despite a rope harness. The scaffolding couldn’t come soon enough.

Finally, after three days of research, and poring over data of ancient Mesopotamian symbols, he finally found by pure accident that there was a strange inversion sequence to the marks, neatly and uniformly scored like the Times Roman font. “It reads,” he murmured into his beard, wincing against the punishing desert sun. “It reads-… Gotcha.”

His hand slipped, and the magnifying glass tumbled to the ground far below, smashing into smithereens like his hopes and dreams.

“Gotcha.”

>>

Of course, the idea is far more than that. Imagine if we had a proposition, an idea, that was not supported. It would be floating in space, neither right or wrong (as far as we know). And if it turns out that there is really no reason supporting it (i.e. the supporting blocks don’t carry meaning), well, the idea really isn’t being shown to be true. It’s much less impressive, kinda like a “Gotcha”.

An example: The sky is blue.

Supporting buttresses (ideas): I see the sky is blue (experience).

Going farther…

An example: There’s a teapot orbiting Pluto.

Supporting buttresses: …?

At this point, we might be loath to say that therefore we don’t know whether there’s a bit of pottery floating around Pluto. Should we go onto believe there are real flying saucers there of one piece with the teapot?

Therefore: bring on the opposing weights (reasons against).

Negative reasons: 1) No one sent pottery into space. 2) It makes no sense to bother launching a teapot into neat orbit around Pluto. 3) Out of the materials brought by astronauts to space, a china teapot probably isn’t one of them. So it getting there by accident is pretty low.

You get the idea.

With negative reasons present, and no positive experience of a tiny tea-pourer in deep space (photos, astronomical data), the propostion that a teapot is really out there should sink to the ground (effectively be rendered null – or be disproved as far as we know).

Try this next time, eg. with Trump.

We get quite upset with the tweets he’s making, which include accusations for which he provides scant evidence (probably don’t need to mention exactly which ones).

If you apply this rule, do Trump’s crazier allegations stand (supported by real reasons) or sink (we have reasons to doubt his words, we have evidence that his words are not true)?

If he has no positive evidence at all, he really hasn’t proven his point (the idea is just floating, neither true nor false – as far as we know). If we have a few reasons to think he is wrong (eg. he’s been known to lie, his story isn’t consistent with the data), then in our minds the tweet should sink to the ground and be dismissed as fake (given the evidence).

So place a large cinder block and make it float horizontally (entirely in doubt).

Add positive reasons to believe it under the block (eg. experience like I see the sky is blue, or inferences: I’m getting wet and the sky is dark at noon so it’s probably raining)

To be fair, stack the reasons against the idea on top of the cinder block (they are the weights).

Then it’s a matter of a balancing game.

Should all the supporting blocks be knocked down by reason and logic, AND there be weights still pushing the cinder block down, Welp! it’s bunk (as far as you know). Rubble on the ground.

If it’s the other way round, you get a nice standing tower of facts/inferences supporting your view.

Create your own tower – one for each idea under question.

Be sure to look out for “Gotcha!’ blocks.

Have fun!

*(Respectful disagreement welcome. The point is to push my thinking forward too.)

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