🪟 2 - Perpetually incomplete datasets
Frame & Axiom #2
Last week, I introduced Project A Memoir Worth Writing and segued it into my first axiom. If you’d like to read it in full, you can do so via the table of contents below. Long story short, this project is a personal record of how I see the world.
Table of contents
Solutions of right framing (note: as it appears to me)
Perpetually incomplete datasets
Cape Cod Morning (1950) by Edward Hopper (Source)
I have vivid memories of sitting in the rear of my family's car as a teenager. I had a knack for dozing off on the move. Something about the feeling of a moving road being akin to the feeling of being rocked to sleep, perhaps. When I was not sleeping, I usually participated as passive observer in my parents' conversations. As much as I had a knack for dozing off in the car, I somehow also cultivated a knack for picking up on conclusions drawn of other people. I liked to call out the possibility of an alternative framing, often comically, and on the rare occasions it remained unvoiced, it did not escape my internal voice. "John did this today and it made me feel terrible." "Well, perhaps he was like that because he just fought with his wife. Who knows?" (To say I was outspoken as a child is an understatement.)
Needless to say, this has nothing to do with the quality of my parents' judgements, since the chances that the outspoken 14-year old in this scene held logical authority was not noteworthy. Rather, I applaud the patience of my parents' with having to deal with the remarks of an opinionated child over serious matters. There was very rarely a case in which the natural diplomat in me could not easily sympathise with two opposing views, on the contrary, I was eternally ready to give all sides the benefit of the doubt. As a child, my framing was a naive one, reflective of my own stage of development, that one should assume best intentions wherever probable.
Fast forward to this day, I still hold onto a similarly childlike view of the world, albeit with more contours to its shape. I maintain that few things can truly be known, and that one should gravitate towards allocating the benefit of the doubt. And perhaps the outspokenness of my childhood has merely translated onto the medium of writing.
I have experienced this worldview play out on multiple levels. For all the moments I have had a disagreement or observed one... for every assumption proven incorrect... for every mistaken judgement and consequent bad decision... on a collective scale, the polarisation of our politics and our affinity for disagreement... the need for a manufactured methodology, a science, in order for us to prove something to be true... between all this, there is only one thing in common. It is human nature. Most, perhaps all problems have their roots in the perpetually incomplete dataset.
Perpetually incomplete datasets
Perception is narrow and knowledge is restricted. First, we are biased toward our personal history. We only take into account what is witnessed. Second, we are biased toward coherence. The lot that is witnessed is processed, cut and shaped to fit our existing datasets, like mental jigsaw puzzles. "We see things not as they are, but as we are", one might remind me of this aphorism. One may also remind me that "the map is not the territory", or of the 'observer effect' that is, the distortion of data as soon as it is observed, or refer me to a catalogue of cognitive biases. They all allude to a certain reality of the mind, that is we predicate our judgements on the basis of an incomplete dataset. We have an inability to discern what is true, only what is coherent. We judge ourselves and the world around us, on the basis of an infinitesimal sample of lived experience. So goes the Japanese proverb, "The frog in the well knows nothing of the mighty ocean”, to which I might add towards the end, ... ‘but thinks something of it anyway.’
The 'matter of perspective' is the resulting discrepancy between individual judgements, which we derive from our own experience of valuations. The diversity of judgements leads to disagreement and conflict of all shapes and sizes — practical, social, metaphysical, from casual to calamitous. Even for narratives that appear irredeemable, such as being robbed of your belongings at gunpoint, all it takes is the knowledge of the near-starvation of the offender's kin, for example, to soften the image of the offender into a sufferer to be pitied. This says nothing of the morals of such an act, rather that judgement towards even blatant crime is dependent on the framing employed. And in every case, even the most apparent framing may warrant the benefit of the doubt. There tends to be a thought I retreat to where society calls for a stoic response, albeit usually jokingly expressed, as when on the road and a vehicle trespasses my own, speeding ahead: "perhaps his wife is in labour".
We prejudice and envy others without knowing how it is to be them. We disagree when we soldier on our datasets, when every other dataset is quite unlike our own, in forms that we can only begin to try to understand but can never fully. One can never truly know what it is like to be another. “The sight of a toothache is not the same as the pain of one”, writes Nietzsche. And we still wonder why it is so difficult for us to be well and truly understood! Fortunately, we have mechanisms to deal with this lot. All social activity operates on the basis of trust, and trust, like faith, is a mechanism that functions on the precipice of datasets. It is a stab in the dark. A belief that something might be what another makes it out to be, that apparent goodwill might turn out to be intended goodwill. We reserve this belief when we think otherwise. Bias mediates trust.
Let alone matters of perspective from one person to another, every judgement and any consequent action one takes is a potential conflict on the temporal plane — an active tension with the future. A plight against reality itself, or in more romantic terms, a dance with reality. “Your mind is the only judge of truth ... [but] reality is the court of final appeal”, as Ayn Rand puts it. Knowledge is constrained by both space and time. Everything is a compromise of data, all stabs in the dark, only differing by degrees of intensity. Who knows what will happen, without having done the thing before? Who knows if the thing will happen as it always has? Who knows if one has applied the right framing or proportions?
On the temporal plane, faith, like trust, is the mechanism that functions on the precipice of datasets. Taking the ‘leap of faith’ that something is what reality makes it out to be. We make bad decisions when our datasets lose ground in their tension with reality. We lose our sense of self when our datasets simultaneously contradict reality and itself. I think that in the journey to totalisation of self, one inevitably has to accept that all datasets are perpetually deficient and at best, a reasoned stab in the dark. The art of life, as posed by the novelist Samuel Butler, is “of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.” Even the fruits of our most intelligent minds are a series of disagreements (perhaps this is what defines the philosophical enterprise itself) — a perpetual clash of datasets, clashing also against reality itself.
From this lens, most things warrant the benefit of the doubt (without going down the epistemological rabbit hole, through which a Cartesian may say all things). It is rational to be doubtful. What is irrational is to be overly certain of one's own conception of reality, even if, perhaps especially if, they are of popular opinion.
In next week's axiom, I journal on my framing of the popular opinion.