Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Cure for Binary Worldviews

Some people reading my post on the limitations imposed on our thinking by the bimodal nature of our view of truth may have found themselves frustrated by it. "Something is either true or it is not. That is undeniable", they may have said. Well, I deny it. So does a significant portion of the population of the world.

Let me give you a simple example to expand your view of the problem. The checkout time of a particular bed and breakfast is 11:00AM. True or false: you will be charged for an extra day if you leave after 11:00AM.

That depends on how long after 11:00AM you leave, doesn't it. The truth or nontruth of that statement is not covered with a simple binary true or false. If you checkout at 11:05AM it is probably not a problem. What about 11:15AM? Now you may be getting some looks but you probably won't have to pay. 11:30AM? By now, the owner may be coming around asking why you are still there. It is even possible they will demand you pay for another day, but in all likelihood if you left right away they would drop the demand that you pay. 12:00PM? They may no longer be willing to drop the demand. 2:00PM? It is getting to be probable you will have to pay for an extra day. 8:00AM the next morning and you will definitely have to pay.

I think it helps to understand how people in other parts of the world view the concept of truth to understand the ways in which our own is lacking. This TEDIndia talk discusses the difference in how the west sees the world as opposed to how people in India see it, starting with the cultures' founding myths. It is well worth watching.

To give another example from India, consider the Syādvāda of Jainism. It has truth states such as "In some ways it is", and "In some ways it is indescribable". Add to this the truth states mentioned by Devdutt Pattanaik in the TED talk (and any other states that we may find useful), and we can re-evaluate the problematic examples from both my earlier post and this one:
  • America's consumption is responsible for the price of oil? Some-but-not-all.
  • Bisphenol A causes cancer in humans? Likely-but-perhaps-not.
  • Bone marrow transplants don't help breast cancer patients? Not-now-but-maybe-later.
  • Human-caused climate change is real? Almost-certainly-but-still-a-remote-chance-not.
  • Checking out after checkout time means paying for another day? Mostly-but-not-always. 

Try thinking about the day-to-day issues that confront you with these added truth-states in your repertoire. The results may just surprise you.

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