Tuesday, December 07, 2004


I have wanted to write on this for a long time. However, this post wouldn't be too long, because it's not possible to be exhaustive on this matter. These are merely some fleeting, frivolous thoughts of mine.

We all know the old adage 'One sparrow does not make a bird'. My question is, if not one, then how many? Even though this may sound trivial at the least, and an amusing philosophical puzzle at most, I think that it has profound implications for many aspects of our existence. Let us consider a few examples:

1. Science: In this rigorous human endeavor, the answer to the above question, most of the times, is a qualified 'no'. Because here, it's tantamount to asking 'Do ten examples make a theory?'. Although most of the times they don't, there are several cases where it's really hard to reach a conclusion. Let's look at the 'pseudoscientists', people who dress up in the guise of science and try to convince us of all kinds of quack theories such as creationism, afterlife, telepathy, UFOs etc. Many times, they resort to a classic weapon of 'logic' to disprove scientists- the weapon of 'evidence or lack thereof'. For example, if they claim that Hitler still lives, then I will have to prove them wrong. Of course, given the circumstances, the most I can do is prove that this is extremely improbable, not impossible. They take my lack of ability of proof as 'disproof' or proof that they are right. Another great arena of debate for them is, and I think perpetually will be, evolution. We have to admit that, even after convincing evidence of evolution, we cannot still actually DEMONSTRATE (albeit in very special cases) evolution. And in fact, even for a scientist, it will always be an everlasting wonder how the living world and humans came to be, and how the cornucopia of organic molecules in living organisms makes possible that what we call 'life'. The pseudoscientists (or creationists or religious dogmatists) turn this wonder against the scientist, and claim that since he cannot actually demonstrate evolution, it must be wrong and therefore God exists and he created the earth. Alluding to the title of the post, they are trying to say that 'The lack of a sparrow, and certainly ten of them, implies the existence of a crow'! In my opinion, what the poor fellows do not understand is that the onus of proof is on them. If lack of proof really always meant the opposite, then all pseudoscientific theories would be true, and 'circumstantial evidence' would go into the dustbin. On the contrary, lack of proof merely means further investigation. So in this case lack of 'sparrows' means simply that, that there are no sparrows. Interestingly, when they have to bear the brunt of proof, the pseudoscientists conveniently use the 'one sparrow' theory very efficiently. For example, they would have said, 'The earth is flat. That's obvious because the ground on which we are standing is definitely flat'. In most cases, such ridiculous claims can be shown to be outright wrong by looking at the big picture (in this case, literally!). Unfortunately, we can never validate or falsify all of their claims. For example, one infallible observation of the universe being billions of years old is that we can see light from stars which are billions of years old. However, the fanatics, who believe that the earth is only ten thousand years old, would ridicule this claim and say that when God created the universe ten thousand years ago, he also created the stars at the observed distance and also instantaneously created the light that we see. It's obvious that this claim cannot be falsified, because we cannot do an experiment. The fanatics would take this to mean that we are wrong and they are right. One of the most fundamental facts of science is its tentative nature. It is precisely because of that, that science can progress. Uncertainty does not mean a complete breakdown of the entire scaffold, as the fanatics assume. But why even bother trying to explain that to them...

Even in 'normal science' the above fact is never easily validated. There have been several conflicts between theories in the history of science (I do not consider the conflict between creationism and evolution to be a legitimate scientific conflict in this regard) in which the two sides tried to argue their point by giving examples of their logic. These examples were the sparrows. So the question is, if I give a thousand examples, do I actually also validate the theory? Well, probably no. But in science, what we usually mean by ‘example’ is observation. And it is extremely unlikely that tens of thousands of observation could be downright wrong. In fact, it is probably more likely that the theory is wrong, in which case it can be modified. So the observation would certainly validate the theory to a very large extent. Again, it is important to keep in mind the tentative nature of science quoted above. Unfortunately, we are too easily resigned to the use of the words 'right' and 'wrong', words which are really very strong to be used even in science. Sometimes we all too easily relegate our perception of events to one of these categories. So yes; in science, ten sparrows don't make a bird. But they do immensely increase the probability of there being a bird! There is always room for doubt though, and doubt is the cornerstone of the scientific method. So it's probably better that way. What happens when the probability goes on increasing? Or decreasing for that matter? Let's say someone proposes a theory, and in support of his theory, he gives many convincing examples. The more examples he gives, the more convincing his theory will become. At some point, his theory will not only be convincing but also consistent. I always think that this is an often-overlooked strength of a successful theory. For example, what if Newton's Laws are wrong? Now this represents a case where the bird has almost been complete, to the point where he is indistinguishable with his ideal, complete version. If someone asks if there is a possibility that Newton's Laws are wrong, the answer is that if they were wrong, not only would this convincing, almost complete replica of a perfect bird be an illusion (highly unlikely) but we would have to discard the sparrows, the bird bath, the branch of the tree, and reality itself! Now that would be very bad indeed! So in this case, it's almost a truism that the bird exists, and that whatever number of sparrows have been employed to build up his image do in fact do that. The bottom line is; in science, the number of sparrows required to make a bird is arbitrary, and the proof of principle can be given by, among other things, repeated observations of the sparrows, common consensus about their existence and role, and self-consistency.

2. Society: When it comes to social problems, things get infinitely more complicated. Let's turn to a recent example that I came across, the work of the renowned left-liberal, linguist, and outspoken critic of US foreign policy, Noam Chomsky (more on him some other time). In his book 'Hegemony or Survival-America's quest for global dominance' (and many others), he says, among other things, that the US is the biggest violator of human rights, the greatest opponent of democracy, and the worst imperialist regime since Great Britain. To back these outstanding claims, Chomsky buries us under a mass of information. Tons of examples from decades document the insidious and selfish activities of the US Government, the US media and the CIA in countries like Central and South America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and East Timor. Many of the examples are spectacularly convincing, some of them less so. The point is, do these examples indicate that capitalism, as exemplified by the US is 'bad'. Does this mean that we and the world need a massive and unilateral overhaul of Government? Do all these examples of US atrocities; the 'sparrows' in this case, mean that we should get rid of capitalism, as we know it? Do these sparrows make a bird? The question is extremely difficult to answer (And that I think is part of the reason why Chomsky could gain so much popular support for decades). The reason is that in science, as we noted above, support for examples i.e. observations, comes from mathematically logical theories and arguments of self-consistency. So observations, no matter how important they are, do not represent the only thread of reality that we hang on to. In the convoluted realm of social sciences, apart from observations, the only other things we can trust are the sensibilities and moralities of people. These can be, and are, easily hidden from us, politicians being the most convincing examples, and most of the times, we simply cannot validate the principles underlying these observations. They can be easily manipulated and subjected to the vagaries of avarice. Secondly, and I think this is a profound dilemma, many times we simply cannot document the other side of the story. For example, Chomsky may give a debilitating number of examples of atrocities committed by the US, which could possibly convince us of the malignant nature of US 'hegemony'. But what about those atrocities which they did not do!? There are several examples of this dilemma. We rant about how pollution kills us slowly but surely. Agreed, the argument is completely valid. But what about those lives that have been saved because of the safety measures adopted by automobiles and industry? After all, we cannot know those figures. So one of the problems with any social scientific argument, especially based on history, is that we never get to know the other side of the story, unlike natural science.
Does that mean that we should stop making a case for all these scenarios? Certainly not! Because there is a second imaginary world, which we are ensuring is imagined. If we don’t take these measures that we do, or at least fight for them, we will not prevent the other extreme situation. For example, if Chomsky did NOT take these stances, then there would be no limit to what the protagonists would do. So all these actions are somewhat like the eternal saying in the Bhagavad-Gita: Do your duty without expecting any fruit. The duty’s value is incomparable.


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