Friday, January 6, 2017

Categories of what we can be pretty sure about and what we will never be sure about

From The Measure of Reality by Alfred W. Crosby.
We, who in W.H. Auden's words, live in societies "to which the study of that which can be weighed and measured is a consuming love," have difficulty imagining an alternative to our approach to reality. We need for purposes of comparison examples of another way of thinking. The writings of Plato and Aristotle celebrate an un-, an almost antimetrological approach and have the further advantage of being representative of our ancestral mode of thought at its best.

These two men thought more highly of human reason than we do, but they did not believe our five senses capable of accurate measurement of nature. Thus Plato wrote that when the soul depends on the sense for information, "it is drawn away by the body into the realm of the variable, and loses its way and becomes confused and dizzy."

The two Greeks' criteria for dividing data into categories of what we can be pretty sure about and what we will never be sure about differ from ours. You and I are ready to agree that the raw data of everyday experience are variable and our sense frail, but we believe we have a category that the two philosophers did not think they had: a category of things that are sufficiently uniform to justify our measuring them, after which averages and means can be calculated. A for the dependability of our senses in making such measurements, we point to the achievements we have made on the basis of their dependability; power looms, spacecraft, actuarial tables, and so on. That is not a solid answer - our successes may be accidents - but it is an example of the way humans often access their capabilities: that ism what works and what does not? Why did Plato and Aristotle, who were bright indeed, shy away from the category of the usefully quantifiable?

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