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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Word Play Part V: Profoundly Vague

        Continued from Part IV.

Have you ever heard claims about how ancient Eastern philosophies are rife with ideas that mesh remarkably well with new insights gained form quantum mechanics?  The world is riddled with claims that newfound scientific knowledge supports this that or the other ancient, religious, or pseudo religious claims.  The concept of entanglement and the idea that everything is inherently entangled with everything else sounds a lot like the “all is one” ideas that were floating around Asia many centuries ago… if you’re not a physicist.

These ancient Eastern philosophies are not rife with ideas that mesh remarkably well with quantum mechanics.  At least, not any more so than ancient Western philosophies.  Sure, the statement “all is one” may sound like it pre-empts the concept of entanglement, but I challenge you to find an ancient philosopher who predicted a violation of Belle’s inequality.  What did all those old religions have to say about the two-slit experiment?

As you may have guessed, there’s a bit of word play going on here.  It happens a lot.  Someone makes a vague statement, and days, years, even centuries later some specific piece of newfound knowledge sounds remarkably similar.  But does that mean that “all is one” is a profound statement?  Not at all.  It only sounds profound because it’s vague.

These sorts of profoundly vague statements use one of two tricks.  The first trick is to just make a terribly vague statement, and then find some specific event or newfound knowledge that meshes with one of the many possible interpretations.  Then you say “Ha, you see that?  I predicted it!”  But this trick is just that, a trick.  When someone says that a terrible disaster will befall America in the early 21st century, don’t believe them when they point to 9/11 and say “I predicted that.”  They didn’t say a pair of planes would crash into the twin towers.  They didn’t even predict that terrorists would be involved.  And if 9/11 didn’t happen, they’d be pointing at Hurricane Katrina and saying “I predicted that.”

This is exactly the trick that astrology uses.  All those horoscopes are vague enough to be interpreted as correctly “predicting” such a wide variety of events that people who want to find “confirming evidence” will find it all over the place.  But your horoscope never predicted “You and your significant other will argue over your financial situation.”  It said “A rough time is in your future.”  This prediction is not profound.  It’s just vague.

The second trick is the bait and switch.  This is where you make a statement with at least two different interpretations (so it is vague).  One of those interpretations is true, but not profound.  The other interpretations would be profound if they were true, but they’re false.  “All is one” pulls the first trick and the second.  Interpreted in the way that meshes with entanglement, it is true, but nothing new to physics.  Interpreted as “everything is essentially one thing,” or “there is no distinction between you and me,” it is just plain false.  It would be profound if these alternate interpretations were true, but they are not.

Another example is “love is a word.”  Interpreted as “love is a word, among other things,” this statement is true, but trivial.  Interpreted as “love is a word, but only a word,” this statement would be profound, except that it is false.  In one case, the statement is true.  In the other, it is false, but would be profound if it were true.  The less alert mind conflates these two cases and falsely concludes that the statement is profound.  The even less alert mind further conflates the two cases and falsely infers that the non-trivial interpretation is true simply because it uses the same words as the trivially true interpretation.

So the next time you hear something that sounds profound, take another minute to think it over.  Is the statement actually saying something specific, or can it be reasonably interpreted in multiple ways?  Is this interpretation actually true, or is it just trying to piggy back of the truth of some trivial interpretation?  Stay alert and take the time to distinguish between the trivially true interpretation, and the would-be-profound but ultimately false interpretation.  Take a moment to determine whether the specific event sighted was predicted, or whether some vague class of events that happen all the time was predicted.  The next time you hear some piece of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, take a closer look.  Is that statement even vaguely profound, or is it just profoundly vague?

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