Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Spectrum: Insight into Seeing Gradations of Light

An old tradesmen's adage goes something like this: "When you add a drop of wine to a barrel of sewage you have a barrel of sewage. When you add a drop of sewage to a barrel of wine you have <dramatic pause> a barrel of sewage."

Drink up! I dare you!
On the surface, these words of wisdom speak to the secret of maintaining a quality product.  Alas, the deeper message encourages the purity of diametric opposites (sewage and wine, in this case) highlighting how human perception is often colored by two allegedly distinct states.

Pick your favorite pair: black and white; true or false, good and evil; sweet and sour; right and wrong; and yes even dead and living. Each of these allegedly binary conditions pervade our everyday conversations and internal contemplations.

In most every case (which falls in frequency somewhere closer to always than to never) these positions are statements of convenience, never quite entirely accurate; a truer assessment will pretty much always fall on a spectrum between the extremes.

For instance, let's consider dead and alive. At first blush this seems like something that must either be one or the other, and never anything else. Yet, consider these: an unfertilized ova, a person in deep coma on life support, the individual tissue cells of a plant or animal, the DNA strand on a particular chromosome, the Earth as a rocky sphere thinly coated with life, one of the estimated 2.5 million people currently caught in human trafficking, a close friend whose body has long since decomposed but whose memory lives on strongly within us, or even a beloved fictional character.  In all these cases, I would argue the assessment of being alive or dead falls somewhere between the extremes of being fully alive and fully dead.

Spectrums better express the complex reality we live in.  Complexity by definition implies that a simple, pure description will not suffice, and yet it is useful to make these succinct black and white assessments in conversation.  Which is to say, I'm not suggesting we censor such words, but instead that we realize their use should be inferred to indicate a condition state is close to an extreme point on the spectrum.

Statistical science thrives on this understanding.  When we test a claim empirically, the evidence at best will give us high confidence of something, and at worst will give us cause to dismiss the claim as extremely unlikely.  This may seem like I'm giving support for disbelief in Evolution and opening up the floodgates for the rational belief in the god or goddess of your choice, alas there is a great divide between having a 99.99% confidence that Evolution is at at work in the world and less than 0.01% confidence that the existence of said deities is true. (hypothetical confidence levels presented are my personal estimates only)

Back to that vintage glass of wine.  It most certainly contains a bit of dirt residue from your wineglass, second hand smoke particles that have landed on the surface, and billions of molecules of water that were all too recently in some creature's urinary system.  And so, when it comes each sip of minutely tainted wine, we simply ignore the trace amounts of sewage present and enjoy the joyous flavors in the moment. (to do otherwise is to subscribe to the inanity of homeopathy)

In the realm between good and evil that is our complex reality, recognizing neither end state actually exists or even could exist should not deter us, as the knowledge informs us on how we can better strive toward that positive end of the spectrum which is Goodness.

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