Is Anything Simply True?

A bulky robot trots stiffly across the lawn, pauses before an obstacle then clears it with an awkward jump. A computer-generated voice on the telephone negotiates an appointment for a haircut. We watch the demonstration videos and stare, amazed.

It has been a big week for technology news and there are several miracles here. First, that we have – through the expenditure of great genius and motivation and resources – produced machines that move and talk a little bit like humans. Second, that the earth – possessing no genius or motivation or resources – produced the humans who made the machines.

It is not quite safe to think about that. We believe two contradictory things and those things must be kept apart or awkwardness ensues. It is perfectly respectable to say that our own complexity is the product of luck and muck and time. On the other hand, no one throws parts in a box, shakes it for a while and expects an assembly to emerge. As we have all learned to our sorrow, life does not work that way. Luck does not do work. Luck does not make machines.

It is uncomfortable to think contradictory thoughts, so we don’t. We build mental fences to keep our hard-fought experience away from our fragile theories.

I read an editorial yesterday that wondered if anything is simply true – true for everyone. Subjectivism is a popular theory these days and many people liked what she wrote. I don’t know the author, but I suppose that she has a car, and perhaps a spouse, and maybe even children. If so, she probably believes in stop lights and is confident that other drivers do, too. Very likely, she believes in hunger and is anxious to prevent it in those who depend on her. As a successful person, I think she must believe in kindness, and probably takes care to encourage and protect those around her.

In fact, she believes that many things are simply true and she expects that other people should believe those things, too. Without shared truth, we could not live together in peace.

I respect the robotic accomplishments demonstrated this week – the tenacity and tough, independent thinking required to learn how things work. Our thinking about the creatures who inspired and produced the robots should be that way, too – grounded in logic and experience and open to all of the data around us.

What do you think? We'd love to know...