ethics, humor, oversimplify, philosophy, politics

Green Grass and Golden Rules

Like overeating, oversimplifying is something we should always try to avoid. Oops, that’s an oversimplification.

Is grass green? Not if it’s Japanese blood grass in autumn.  Does a bear shit in the woods? Not if it’s a polar bear.  Is the sky blue?  Not at 1:00 AM.  Something important is hiding in plain sight here.  Everybody and their uncle have always known counterexamples to the claim that the sky is blue, and some of them have been celebrated with striking photos.  On the other hand, when cartoonist Garry Trudeau wanted to poke fun at reflexive Republican opposition to anything proposed by President Obama, he used this same claim in the Doonesbury strip that appeared 2015-05-24 in my local paper.  Clinging to his tattered hope for bipartisanship, Obama responds to an aide’s disillusionment by announcing something he thinks will be utterly uncontroversial: that the sky is blue.  The last panel shows a subsequent press conference held by the Senate’s Republican majority leader.

Leader McConnell, is the sky blue?
I am not a meteorologist.

Whether or not U agree with Trudeau’s take on the attitudes of those who pass for Republicans nowadays (and whether or not U found the strip funny), I trust that U did recognize the question about the sky’s color as a more polite version of the question about ursine defecation.  Even tho U know about sunsets.  Even tho U know that everybody else knows about them too. What is going on here?

1. Everything Is Oversimplified

Well, not everything.  The black and white cattle living on the farm near my house are not oversimplified.  They just are what they are.  Much of what I might say about them is oversimplified.  Indeed, it is hard to find anything nontrivial to say about them that is just plain true (like 2+3 = 5), w/o any qualifications or exceptions.  From a distance, they are black and white cattle, lounging on green grass under a partly blue sky.  Look more closely, and a few of them have brown instead of black.  Does it matter? Not to me.  Maybe it would matter to somebody who breeds Belted Galway cattle.  I just admire the bu-cow-lic scene and stay upwind.  Does a cow shit in the pasture?

Overeating is something people often do.  They should always try not to, and many of us can succeed most of the time.  Oversimplifying is more complicated.  Sometimes it is harmless (or even helpful as a temporary expedient); sometimes it is hardly better than lying.  Trying not to oversimplify is generally good, but the cure can be worse than the disease.  It may be better to oversimplify, be honest about it, and remain open to working on a more accurate formulation as the the need arises.  A more accurate formulation may well be good enough for a long time, but not forever.  Scientific theories and engineering calculations are like that.  Guess what?  So are ethical principles.

2. Why Is “Golden Rules” Plural in the Title?

What we call “the” Golden Rule has been formulated in various ways by various cultures.  A nice discussion appears on pages 83-86 in the book Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar by Cathcart and Klein.  (The book is a great read, even if U aced Philosophy 101 and have already heard many of the jokes.)  They use an old joke to illustrate how seriously oversimplified the rule is:

A sadist is a masochist who follows the Golden Rule.

It gets worse.  Even when how people like to be treated is pretty much the same thruout a group, the Golden Rule stumbles.  I was both amused and disturbed when cartoonist Scott Adams showed how badly it stumbles in a Dilbert strip I should have saved.  The boss proclaims that company policy will henceforth be to follow the Golden Rule.  Dilbert objects; the boss asks why.  The resulting exchange goes something like this:

Would U like me to give U $100?
Um, yes.
OK, follow the Golden Rule and give me $100.

The boss is reduced to sputtering indignation.  Dilbert is clearly taking the rule too literally and ignoring an implicit consensus about exceptions.  But what are they?  I could not say where Dilbert errs.

Most of the formulations discussed by Cathcart and Klein are somewhat clunkier than our culture’s usual

Do unto others as U would have others do unto U.

They amount to saying

Do not do unto others as U would not have others do unto U.

Maybe people thought of the Dilbert objection and tried to get avoid it by prohibiting X rather than mandating Y.  This does help, but there is still a problem.

Would U be disappointed if I refused your request to give U $100?
Um, yes.
Please give me $100.
 I see.  U are just as hypocritical about the Confucian version of the Golden Rule as U are about our usual version.

If U fall off a boat and I hear U shout a request to be thrown a life preserver, I will try to do just that.  Just don’t walk up to me and request to be given $100.  What is the difference?  People can start with our usual formulation of the Golden Rule, admit that it is grossly oversimplified, consider what seems reasonable in thought experiments like this, try for a more explicit consensus about exceptions, and remain open to considering more adjustments as more situations arise, either in practice or in thought experiments.  Can we do better?

Immanuel Kant tried valiantly to do better with his Supreme Categorical Imperative, which is a fun read if U like reading tax laws or patents.  Cathcart and Klein have the details.

As a former wannabe mathematician, I would very much like to see a nice crisp formulation of the Golden Rule (or of any other important general principle) that just nails it, w/o exceptions or vagueness.  Nice work if U can get it.  If I ever get stuck with trying to help socialize a child, I will give the kid our usual version of the Golden Rule, say that it is a great starting point for thinking about how to behave, admit that real life is messier, and offer to talk about it more as the need arises.  I will not mention Kant.

haiku, humor, philosophy

Could a Long Fly Ball Hit a Flying Horse?

This is the only time I have needed to put some fiction into my blog, so I will change font for a little while.


Sometimes it is hard to be fair to Plato. He is basically a good guy, but his politics are bullshit. That “philosopher-king” notion is so self-serving. Then there is that cave shtick. Most people know that philosophers can be a little klutzy in everyday life. We give them some slack and don’t make a big deal of it. But Plato says the wannabe king has been looking at ultimate reality and absolute truth (and maybe a pretty girl sunbathing?) in bright daylight, so he stumbles in the cave that passes for the real world among ordinary Joes. After his eyes adapt to the dim light, he will govern just fine. No way.

Feeling mellow enough to ignore Plato’s politics, I invited him over to watch a baseball game on TV. He was surprised that the pitcher threw a ball rather than a discus or a javelin, and that nobody was naked. But he is a smart guy and soon understood the duel between the pitcher and the batter. He noticed the (4 balls or 3 strikes) rule for ending an at-bat and said something about the ratio 4:3 in music by The Pythagoreans. Are they a band I don’t know about? He broke into a big grin when a batter sent a long fly ball arcing high above the field. Tho he knows zip about physics, he hangs out with Euclid and knows a parabola when he sees one.

To Plato, the path of the fly ball in the grungy everyday world is an imperfect realization of the timeless perfection of an ideal parabolic form. To me, the description of the path as a parabola is a good approximation that ignores air resistance and wind. Ignoring those things is OK in an introductory physics course. It is not OK in a baseball game.


Using the parabola to describe the fly ball oversimplifies a staggeringly complex everyday world that emerges from a staggeringly weird tarantella of elementary particles. Our use of the parabola is fundamentally a story we tell ourselves. Unlike the story of Pegasus the flying horse, it has been corrected, refined, and integrated with many other stories by scientific processes. The notion of a flying horse is appealing (to people who have not been hit by a bird splat). The parabolic story is ultimately more satisfying, as part of something gloriously predictive and useful (despite not being much help to the outfielder running to catch the fly ball).

Pegasus himself is as limited in time and space as the Pegasus story: an idea created by some people at some time and place, elaborated and spread by other people at other times and places. The Pegasus story will vanish and its starring horse will vanish with it, if we succeed in our current efforts to make the Earth uninhabitable long before we can go elsewhere. Would the parabolic story vanish also? That is a question for another time. The mathematical cast of characters in the parabolic story, on the other hand, is special. Very special.

Plato’s Revenge

Three plus two was five
before any mind could know.
Where do numbers live?

My snapshots of Plato and of Pegasus could not get thru the time warp, but I did some cropping and resizing of public domain images with good likenesses.

haiku, humor, philosophy

Games, Beauty, and Overreach

As readers of my previous post may have guessed, obeying the 5-7-5 Rule has become something of a game for me.  To date, I have written 50 haiku, all of them (5-7-5)-compliant.  I hope to extend my streak to at least 56 because Joe DiMaggio’s epic hitting streak lasted for 56 consecutive baseball games in 1941.

Wait a minute.  My (5-7-5)-compliance is a game; DiMaggio’s profession was the game of baseball.  The list of games is long and diverse (peekaboo; scrabble; solitaire; …). What do all those “games” have in common? In defiance of centuries of tradition dating back to Plato and Aristotle, the 20-th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein proposed a radical answer:


(We can leave some wiggle room for something bland and inconsequential about amusing activities, often but not necessarily competitive.)  Looking long and hard at the word “game” in all its sprawling diversity, Wittgenstein observed that there are many is-a-lot-like relationships among games, such as

Hockey is a lot like soccer.

To a nonfan like me, hockey and lacrosse and soccer are all essentially the same game, with obvious minor differences.  Remove the goalie and U get basketball.  Football is somewhat like such games and also somewhat like baseball.  Card games are like each other in various ways.  One may well be able to get from one game to another by several is-a-lot-like steps, but is-a-lot-like relationships are not transitive.  After more than a few of such steps, it is no surprise if nothing worth fussing about is shared.

Wittgenstein did not stop with games.  Philosophers have often sought to find and formulate what is common to all the activities or things that may rightly be called “good” or “beautiful” (or whatever uplifting adjective U want), with the presumption that something nontrivial and enlightening might be said.  Tho Wittgenstein did not actually prove that quest to be hopeless, he did show that the burden of proof is heavier on somebody who thinks

What is beauty?

makes sense than on somebody who just says

I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

Images of beautiful people and places abound.  Sculptors create beautiful objects; composers write beautiful music.  In math, a beautiful proof of the Pythagorean Theorem was created by replacing the usual picture (of 3 squares glued to the sides of 1 triangle) with a picture of 4 copies of the same triangle, arranged to form 2 squares:

4 · ( ½ · a · b) + c²
Intellectually, I agree with Wittgenstein.  Pachelbel’s canon and the 2-squares proof are both beautiful, we already knew that, and philosophy has nothing to add.  I just want to remark that the urge to understand the world in terms of general principles works rather well when science encourages sobriety, by testing predictions about small stuff before trusting grandiose pronouncements about large stuff.

Emotionally, I sense something more likable than mere hubris in those who overreach, something akin to the spirit of people in New Orleans who tough out hurricanes or return after them.

This is Not Apollo 13

Failure is not an
option; it is a given.
But we will still try.

No Pots of Gold

Seek ends of rainbows.
You will not find them? Okay.
The quest is enough.