I had expected that this New Year’s Eve would be no different than any other. As is my custom I watched the Times Square ball drop on television and heard the mighty throng cheering deliriously the passing of one year and the beginning of a new one. Yet this year I found the celebratory emergence of 2020 was less a joyous occasion than another signpost of the inescapable march of time. It brought to my mind the image of taking one’s favorite ride at an amusement park. As much as you are enjoying the experience you are cognizant that at any moment it may end. Life is like that. Given this state of mind, every moment becomes precious.
Yet there is so much to do and so much to contemplate. In 2020 more than any other time in my life I feel an overwhelming need to understand the workings of the universe: the whats, the hows and most importantly the whys. I intend to explore these questions with you in this column during the year. I hope you find it as compelling and interesting as I do. So during 2020, utilizing my philosophical training, let’s investigate some of the more interesting questions of our time. I must confess that the every year I am increasingly struck with a sense of wonder for a universe whose melodies and harmonies reveal themselves with a greater and subtler depth with each exuberant exploration.
If there ever was a time when we need to develop a methodology to discern fact from fiction it is today. We are bombarded by information and theories that push the boundaries of our understanding on a myriad of levels. Our search for the truth pertaining ultimate questions or even pedestrian simple factual issues is under intense attack. It is not unusual to wonder: Is there a truth at all, or is everything relative? Our long held views on politics, humanity, society and even the universe are constantly being questioned. As a result we need to step back and evaluate both our values and these present day challenges. There is no better way to perform this task and maintain a clear sense of intellectual and emotional clarity than by employing long utilized philosophical tools.
Of course we are free to ask the preliminary question: is this a waste of time? How much can we really know? Although I acknowledge that, constrained by our physical limitations, we are limited in what we can perceive; I nonetheless embrace the goals of the philosophical enterprise: 1) critical understanding, 2) systematic articulation, 3) precision and clarity, and 4) reasoned evaluation. It is my firm belief that if we carefully examine and weigh the hypothesis before us we can achieve one if not all of these desired levels of understanding.
In past columns I presented for your consideration the “scientific approach’ as a way of examining difficult questions. Building on that, today I want to share with you the “SEARCH” method as a reasonable way to evaluate any proposed statement of fact. I intend to show you in future columns how we can use this technique in extracting the thorns from otherwise thorny issues. The “SEARCH” formula goes something like this:
1) State the hypothesis. For example, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer is real and lives in the North Pole.
2) Examine the evidence for the claim. Millions of children fervently believe that Rudolph is real and helps the delivery of presents on Christmas. Some have said they have seen him actually flying. It is not inconceivable that given the millions of reindeer in the world that some may have mutated to the point where they possess the ability to fly. However the SEARCH method requires a thorough examination of the quality as well as quantity of any supporting data. In this case such an examination would call into question the credibility of evidence supporting the proposition that a reindeer could either fly, have a nose that lights up red, or would be able to assist in the delivery of billions of presents on Christmas morning.
3) Consider alternative hypotheses. An alternative theory that Rudolph is an imagined creature created in and celebrated by a Christmas song makes more sense. This theory is supported by evidence that’s overwhelming; it doesn’t contradict well established principles of biology, and does not require us to believe in new entities.
4) Rate according to the Criteria of adequacy, each hypothesis. In this final step we will look at both the initial proposition as well as alternative theories. Adequacy can be measured by asking other questions: Can the hypothesis be tested? Does the proposal explain new phenomena? Is it the simplest explanation of reality? Is it consistent with our most well founded beliefs? Or does it fly in the face of well founded evidence or scientific theories?
You may remember the 1999 movie Magnolia starring Tom Cruise and others. In the film frogs (and a gun) mysteriously fall from the sky. This bizarre happening is of course logically possible. However it conflicts with an enormous amount of human experience regarding frogs, gravity, and objects falling from the sky in general. According to the SEARCH method we must assign a low degree of probability that this actually happened. We can feel confident in maintaining that position unless and until we are presented with reliable and testable evidence in support of the frog raining hypothesis.
This type of deliberative examination of proposed theories of fact is not unlike what a criminal jury does every day. The jury is charged to carefully examine evidence presented to it through the critical lens of credibility, accuracy, common sense, simplicity, and the demands of the law. This assessment should not concern itself with emotion, passion, political persuasion or agenda, or preconceived notions. This last point, that the jury be free of preconceived notions, is so important that the courts and the advocates spend countless hours asking the proposed jurors question to try to eliminate those who possess them.
So my dear friends, armed with the SEARCH method, I propose that we form our own jury. During the coming weeks, without any preconceived notions, let’s tackle issues that have been around for centuries and those which are of particular concern to us in 2020. Our ride in the amusement park of life is not yet over. In the meantime let’s have some fun. Stay tuned.