Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Indian and Ice

An Indian lady, Lata has lived her whole life in a village in Rajasthan, close to the Thar Desert. Among many things, India is commonly known for it's hot and sultry weather. And if one lives near a desert, you can be certain to have faced nothing but high temperatures and severe water depravity. We assume that this tale happened in the early 1800s, when many countries didn't know of a refrigerator or freezer. Lata had never heard or seen one. Lata's brother Raj was a traveler and he was adventurous to venture out into the world, meet different people and interact with different cultures. Raj returned from one such a long trip to the West and was regaling Lata with all his stories, full of wondrous things and novel experiences.

In his tales, he mentions about this curious thing called "Ice". A fascinated Raj was trying to explain to his sister that in some countries, temperatures went so cold that water turned into solid, called Ice. He was intrigued that there wasn't a drastic change in temperature between the transient states when water turned solid. Lata nodded quietly with a sad thought that her brother had turned into one of those pompous travelers who weave tales and talk of mystical creatures just to gain popularity and superiority among their naive villagers.

Lata did not believe that water could turn into solid. She refused to be gullible to her brother's tales. Was her reasoning right? (Source: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume)

On one hand, Lata's skepticism must be appreciated. She was definitely not as naive as the other women and relied on her judgments and experiences. On the other hand, was she being overly cautious and narrow-minded? I believe that while Lata was truly a strong woman who was shrewd enough to not believe everything that someone as close as her own brother would tell her, her beliefs were probably too rigid to let her open her mind and question the possibility.

I would have appreciated her reasoning, if she had considered the possibility and tried to find reasons as to how it could not hold true, and then tried to refute them... she only used her limited experiences and beliefs to refute that it could not hold true. If a person has not won an argument from both sides, then there is a hole in the reasoning. Having been in a hot place, she must have seen water evaporate - i.e., water changes to another state (steam) when the temperature is increased. Could it then change state when the temperature was decreased? She has surely not tried it.... so can she be sure?

Obviously, she doesn't have the capacity to perform such an experiment. Neither can anyone demonstrate it to her in the middle of a desert. But sometimes we accept certain things without question. When I was young, I didn't question when I was taught that sun rises in the east, we breathe in O2 and exhale CO2 etc. Those were accepted as being true since everybody around me believed so. I didn't have to perform experiments to accept them. I trusted my sources.

Could Lata have trusted some sages who came down from the Himalayas and said they had seen ice and snow? Could she have trusted it if the idol of Shiva showed the snow capped mountains, or if the vedic mantras mentioned them? My guess is yes.

In this particular scenario, Lata could not have accepted this statement as the truth, unless it was proved to her, or it was stated in a context in which she believed in. Lata's reasoning was incomplete - good that she did not readily believe her brother, but she didn't let herself question the possibility of it because of her intractable belief system of her world around her.... and that's not a good sign of reasoning. This is commonly called as the frog-in-the-well syndrome :)

Baggini's question is - how do we draw the line between trusting someone, and being judicious enough to not get fooled? Thoughts?


SUMI said...

I have three thoughts:

1. Google
2. Wikipedia
3. Urban Legends


Neeraja said...

Hehe! :)... Blessed are we, being the children of the Internet Age!