The World as a Picture or Collage

In an earlier blog I introduced the term *collage* and distinguished it from related nouns, picture and presentation. A collage, as commonly used, includes recognizable objects but also the arrangements and juxtapositions of items in an unexpected, spurious, curious manner. The collage itself may also include spaces between objects — blank spaces which have no identity except for their hue or lack of form, their formlessness. Look at the sky at night. Twinkles, some larger objects, some streaks of light moving at speed, respectively named stars, planets, airplanes or spacecrafts. Also much darkness, emptiness.

So when we look outside ourselves we invent names for every item we can distinguish from its indifferent (black?) background. We make special efforts to do so, to order and arrange our perceptual world. Whenever we are unwilling or unable to identify a pin-of-light, a manifestation of an object we tend to speak of “the void” — and secretly treat it as an object! But — as we have learned — today’s “void” may be tomorrow’s treasure-chest, filled with fascinating objects which hold secrets to our understanding of our universe!

The history of science illustrates how fickle we are in this regard. The history of ourselves also tells how determined we are to complete a story — a fantasy — once begun. We seek “understanding”, not only recognition. We recognize the latter, but when this fails we create objects, but also we invent processes to help and assist our understanding. This has been the pattern since Aristotle raised “understanding” as our highest goal, the hallmark of our god-like nature.

The objects we distinguish around us may have clear relations to each other. Thus, several philosophers — and more recently some scientists — have urged that we study the act of perception and other attributes ascribes to human (e.g. R.S. Peters: Motivation and D. Armstrong: Perception) more critically than our predecessors since it does not follow that everyday descriptions of ourselves, though old, are necessary faultless or correct. Common sense, it is claimed, is not a good guide in these matters. We have been repeatedly warned not to assume that our current self-descriptions and especially those of our so-called “states of mind” have greater accuracy or authority than our descriptions of “the external world” (G. Ryle: The Concept of Mind) but that these are subject to great hazards. Better to be than certain!

The trend throughout the 20th century has been to view descriptions of the external world as a scaffold which rest on the certainty of our perception of our own inner experiences, but one should remember that descriptions are invariably constrained by limits which reflect the descriptive habits of far earlier periods, periods which have promote their own “wisdom” and “habits of thought” and which are untainted by contemporary knowledge! History is only a record of our past achievements, which includes its failures to describe ourselves and our attributes well. A health system based on well-tried prescriptions from the past, list of uncritically accepted cures?

The world as a picture therefore includes some temporary successes but primarily failures to describe “matters of current interest” in terms of dated concepts. This does not mean that the pictures of the past make sense, but only that some aspects of the composite may. The paintings of Marc Chagall are replete with suggestions of self-contained episodes — and this can also be said of paintings by surrealists, yet we regard each as self-contained, not as an episode of pictures whose outlines have never been seen!

Successful achievements and failures to achieve may just happen to come together — under the same umbrella, so to speak — like pedestrians seeking temporary shelter during a flash rain-storm. In that respect these form a collage. The term *collage*, furthermore, is not currently part of the elaborate vocabulary of philosophy, or of cosmology, but is more at home in the arts than in formal disciplines. It stands for the idea that we normally judge something after “scanning”, that the idea of a moment is imprecise and covers too many judgements based on a succession of temporary impressions and viewed as a composite. In philosophy itself the term “theory” has long been been elevated to a paramount position to contrast with formlessness, with the notion that the pieces in hand cannot be assembles into a whole. The emphasis is on an “integration” of seemingly coherent parts into a wider, more comprehensible position, of bringing “ideas” together (see a classic of the genre, namely, A.N. Whitehead: The Adventure of Ideas, 1933). Perhaps *collage* should become part of the working vocabulary of philosophy?

Philosophers have often claimed that they were concerned with eternal verities, about matters which not confined by the limits of time, matters which have lasting values. As self-declared lovers of wisdom, philosophers are often assumed by others to be priests without a formal religion. They were bound to their own beliefs and therefore carried an obligation to defend these against the multitudes, the “common people”, as well as others equally skilled in handling thoughts and speculations. They were said to theorize, to discuss theories as objects, just as scientists discuss their methods of inquiry and what it is they have already achieved or hope to achieve through the rigorous application of such methods. By common consent these methods were the rewards of discovery. Their methods were viewed as tools of discovery which could be ordered, a process which demands that each move gets evaluated by agreed criteria. For scientists then, the discovery of a method was a “rightful tool” which had as much significant as a miniature screwdriver has for a watchmaker, or a needle for a tailor. (Threads or strands of fibres existed before needles!) Two centuries ago we discovered and developed the tools of statistical analysis, how aggregates of measures of a trend can be used productively and how this helped to change our studies and investigations of “natural” but also of “social” phenomena (appearances). It is useful to keep this analogy in mind whenever we discuss “science” and what it suggests to us about the nature of Nature (Aristotle’s quest).

Philosophers have singled out logic and the analyses of arguments as their primary tools. Logic has been used to analyze the consistency of existing arguments, or of fragments of an argument, especially beliefs widely held by others. It is used to show where an argument would lead to if it were pursued rigorously, or to demonstrate that a particular argument may be itself be based on empirically false premises. For centuries there has been an understanding that sooner or later errors in logical derivations from premises would surface sooner or later, and that this would automatically lead to the rejection of the argument as a whole! This has happened occasionally, but not consistently or always. More recently there have been discoveries of a contradiction which had remained undiscovered but that the argument had terminated too early for the discovery of such contradictions to be made. This potential fault line may have been dealt with by translating any argument into a mathematical form and testing it with the help of high-speed computers. The results to date have only shown that all things considered that the chances of identifying a contradiction are disturbingly high. It means, in effect, that we cannot guarantee — as was initially required — that an argument is logically faultless and was impervious to contradiction. Yet without this the aim of a logical analysis cannot be guaranteed that it is itself faultless — that is represents an unbroken line from given premises to conclusion. A conjecture can be correct even if an argument to support it is faulty.

Many early philosophers, unlike priests, were not inclined to employ arguments to support a viewpoint for which they could not find independent support: their task was being primarily critical. One states the premises and then works out the implications. The model was that an argument starts with some widely held and unchallenged conclusion — e.g., “eating pork is bad for your health” — and then proceeds to demonstrate that the conclusion has been reached by following authorized logical procedures. In this respect philosophers have acted more like teachers and sages than defenders of an official faith — a habilitated-belief — something which might set them on a collision course with a viewpoint of a powerful “establishment”, where official views were backed by an enforcement agency. Habilitated-beliefs are a new concept and will be discussed in a separate blog.

(for Tim)

Philosophers as Shamans

This is the first of several short pieces on the relation between shamans and philosophers. Each piece deals with an aspect of the theme of how faith—healers differ from philosophers, how metaphysical thoughts may influence how we perceive our world — that is, what we actually claim to have seen, whether through rational persuasion by others — by changing the framework of perception and coincidentally changing our sense of personal well—being and of the body itself. Shamans — male and female — are precursors of priests and organized religion, but more often are viewed opponents than friends.

How to distinguish Philosophers from Shamans

This strange and challenging title joins two groups: philosophers and shamans. In the popular mind these seem to have very little in common.

wittgensteinBoth can be soothsayers, but philosophers traditionally deal in wisdom whereas shamans with well-being, the esoteric, the health of body and mind. The general view is — I think — that philosophers are educated, wise, cool in judgement, perhaps a little eccentric and monistic, inclined to press and urge their “take on things”, are often anti-establishmentarians because they challenge some features of what is perceived by others as common-sense. After all, the ordinary person does not walk around and claim that “time is not real” as some philosophers have done, or suggest that all things are made from the same unseeable substance, from atoms, which by definition cannot be “sensed”. These views varies from what is normally accepted. Philosophers however have negotiated with others a license to raise issues about obvious matters and issues and are often permitted by their fellow citizens to utter the unutterable, and speak whereof the ordinary person must remain silent. This is generally speaking a benevolent view of philosophers : it views them as gadflies, but not as vicious rampaging mosquitoes.

Lest we forget, most societies in the past have not been tolerant towards philosophers, but have been more hospitable to shamans and faith-healers. Their claims seem to much more plausible. Shamans are more rare in moderns society than they once were. One see an occasional sign on the window of a private home advertising their services. We may also hear about them in Anthropology 101, a subject fewer students study now than in my day — relatively speaking — but the term may also occur en passant in Sociology 101, a subject which attracts an increasing number of students in colleges and universities.

But shamans, as I will argue, are the original or ur-physicians, and emerged as a force within tribal societies before medicine was hijacked as a “profession” and became increasingly devoted to “physical medicine” and less and less with the spiritual well-being of individuals.

The shaman in early society was a standard figure in larger human groups and his/her role was to achieve relief from pain and discomfort for others by their specialized knowledge of “nature”, plants, animals and what we would call “natural resources”, and also by their presumed access to the world of spirits, either benevolent spirits, indifferent spirits or evil ones, that is, demonic and covetous, spirits.

Like humans, spirits responded to others, could be helpful or mischievous, even downright evil. They have to be contacted and approached before one could negotiated, even master, them. This was the unique job of the shaman, a job perhaps inherited from the father or mother and required a life-style different from those of tribal confreres. Indeed, in many early societies the role of supreme ruler (king) and shaman were combined — a potentially hazardous combination because when kings fail they face revolt and execution. Kings accepted their responsibilities for the future of their “tribe”; shamans do not.

Generally speaking, shamans also do not guarantee success in restoring the health and comfort to their “patients”. They could not be sued for malpractice! Failure of their mission could be attributed to extenuating circumstances, never to the shaman as an inadequate practitioner of their esoteric art. One price paid for this exemption of responsibility was that they were often viewed as outsiders and some modern commentators have suggested that shamans had symptoms of schizophrenia, which could easily isolate them from the rest of their tribal fellows.

I do not want to give the impression that there is a smooth continuity between the shamans of old, as they operated within early societies — in some cases many thousands years ago — and contemporary medical practitioners in countries like the USA, Canada, France, Germany or Scandinavia who have their roots in a series of critical developments during the 19th century, in the work of Semmelweis, Pasteur, Charcot and Freud, Lister, Ehrlich — and in retrospect above all in Darwin and modern genetics, those medical practitioners who focussed on the role of biological mechanisms which underly life itself. Far from it. But this applies equally to other disciplines, especially to physics which underwent several “scientific revolutions” (in Kuhn’s (1962) sense) during the 20th century and who are almost as far away from the speculations of Democritus (400 BCE) and Aristotle (c. 330 BCE) as the shamans (c. 10,000-5000 BCE) are from moderns physical medicine and psychiatry. Continuity is not linearity and does not imply a smooth uninterrupted development from early roots to the present, but refers to similarity of problems, not of solutions.

Thus, people have become speechless since we first adopted speech as our primary method of communication, but our understanding of what produces periods of speechlessness in our lives has radically changed as a results of systematic research done on this problem over the last 100 years.

Shamans assumed that our states of awareness (consciousness) reflected something about the natural order of the world they lived in: that spiritswere “of the essence” of things and that material bodies were “abstractions” in the sense that a “mountain” — or a “tree” — were manifestations or representations of a reality greater, or above, what was physically experienced. It is a view which is still with us — and which underlies much of what goes under the name of “philosophical idealism”.

What shamans in general assumed was that ubiquitous spirits, which were part of everything perceived, could be influenced even controlled by “special methods” which were unique to them. These methods included secret concoctions and brews as well as idiosyncratic methods of solicitations (like incantations and gestures, including dances). I am reminded of scientists in the mid-20th century who claimed that the true path to Truth is via method — itself a half-truth.

The shaman furthermore believed — as did their followers — that practices of divination not only propitiated spirits, but were instrumental in healing others through the mediation of other, to most people alien but powerful spirits. Healing for purpose of our discussion is viewed as “restoration” of spirit, for even boils and bodily wounds were often viewed as manifestations of spiritual. In general, it means that without a universal belief in different levels of reality — and a firm conviction that the world of spirits is primary — neither shamanism or religion would take root: chimpanzees, our close biological kin, are not known to divide their experiential world into a spiritual and a physical realm. It is a human proclivity to assume this.

We do know this: that our earliest text about what humans believed about their world, as recounted in Hesiod’s (c.650 BC) Theogony — only 300 years ago — reveals that our ancestors viewed their world as inhabited by gods which were not different in most respects to themselves, except that these were more powerful, more corrupt, more vengeful and conniving than we allow ourselves to be.

Our ancestors faced two sets of issues: unwellness due to spirits and un-wellness due to physical injury. The former could be “cured” by spiritual means, the latter could be alleviated. A woman bitten by a poisonous snake may be helped by ointments made from special (secret) plants, but a man in violent and uncontrollable temper or mood — overcome, as we say, by emotions — could more likely be helped by spiritual methods (although smoking pot or certain libations and brews, may also alleviate his distress). An arm lost to a lion could not be restored, but the suffering which follows could be abated by appropriate spiritual intervention.

Spiritual intervention means healing an afflicted person by restoring their sense of wholeness and well-being. Struck by lameness, loss of hearing, inability to balance when walking, loss of speech are all examples of such afflictions — and are prototypical of ailments from which a person can recover and have been known to recover fully or in part. Each of these functions can be restored through the help of a third party: the faith-healer, the miracle worker, perhaps with the help of a friendly exorcist, or the support by your social worker or spiritual advisor-priest.

All these “moderns” — whether dressed in white lab coats or in ceremonial and religious garments — fulfill the role and functions of earlier shamans. They often mediate the “cures” promised, whether for long periods or only temporarily — and they always have explanations why in some (many?) cases the treatment was “only temporary” or on occasions even unsuccessful. Not all the lame at a revivalist meeting raise themselves and walk as their preacher exhorts them to when they cry “Heal in the name of xxxx”!! Some do — and persuade the rest of their large fellow brethren, of the efficacy of the divinely inspired message of the preacher.

All treatments discussed above require an intermediary — a male or female “shaman”. All require that the afflicted person or persons believes in the efficacy of the treatment. Both parties to the cure share a theory to explain to themselves and to others why the treatment should work — and why it often does not. I shall address this problem in a follow up blog but remind the reader to keep in mind than a prothesis is not a shamanic device.

Tail-note: Philosophers — but also modern psychologists — have a special interest in the “nature of belief” but the former try to remove themselves as far possible from acts which can be construed as therapeutic in intent. Wittgenstein was not a therapist. Do they succeed? Only partially — which is one of the reasons for writing this and future blogs. Philosophers often behave as if they have a therapeutic objective, as if by rewriting one’s script one can also re-structure one’s life. Perhaps there is some truth in this.

Facts and the Web of Conceit

Part 1 — Corroboration of Beliefs

When people talk about themselves — about what they saw, how they felt about everyday things, even how they discuss unusual happenings — their utterances could often have been expressed more succinctly, more accurately, with more of a twinkle in their eyes or fervour in the voice. I myself invariably look for “better” ways of describing things, especially personal impressions and experiences. I am acutely aware of the difference between how I think about past experiences and how I report these to others. There is a conflict between the best words which give the most accurate description and to tailor the suit to the wearer.

Sometimes a matter of making things interesting rather than boring. One may take a measure of the other person, of their sensibilities and their sophistication. But one also needs to draw a line,to reach conclusions readily, correctly, avoid dilly-dallying, tell it as it comes even when it is not how things originally appeared, by a good preacher, not a yawning lecturer. Such doubts mostly concern personal experiences and do not apply to reporting “objective” matters.

Thus when I tell you that I flew from Toronto to London on the 8th September, 2011 this report that can be independently supported, that is, corroborated by independent “others”. Corroboration by others supports any beliefs I express on my own behalf.*

Belief, we can conclude, is either something we confirm to be “true” because we trust our personal experience (even when we shouldn’t!) or because we trust others regardless of whether we trust ourselves in a matter. (Was I awake or dozing when I thought I saw a mouse climb up a clock?)

Belief is therefore not a property or quality of an event, but refers to a personal, subjective state to which we have assigned transcendental qualities, namely a quality which cannot be independently verified. We do so on the assumption that it is an act of affirmation which others cannot deny us — even dare not deny us!

When used in the plural, e.g. (a) my beliefs, suggesting that I have several beliefs which together form an entity, often referred as a set of beliefs or that (b) our beliefs, that is a set of individual beliefs each of which is also part of each person’s set of beliefs, there is a problem.

Take each in turn: (a) my beliefs suggests that I am the owner of several belief-items, that each item is, or may be independent of others and that these have no common origin. It is like having individual pearls in my jewellery box, not strung together into a necklace or fashioned into an ornament. Furthermore some pearls may have a different hue than others, or differ in size, features not mentioned or discussed by my statement.

828002.TIFBut beliefs, like pearls, differ in brightness, size, and other properties and some beliefs are more intensely believed than others. Also different beliefs held may be coherent, that is, constitute a web of beliefs and therefore have a demonstrable structure which relate them to each other or which like pearls lie separately yet waiting to be arranged into one or more pieces of jewellery.

It seems more often that the latter describes things best, even though we fantasize otherwise on the assumption that beliefs should form a “configuration”. We may occasionally be able to demonstrate that some belief-items cohere though the wish here may be father to the claim.

Consider the term (b) our beliefs (which I treat as one word referring to one item). This may refer to one of two notions: first, that each person has a set of (independent) foundational ideas, which is referred to as “our beliefs” since it refers to an individual person’s set of individual beliefs. Yet my set of beliefs and yours may differ, so that it it is appropriate to refer to these in the plural form, as our beliefs, your set and mine.

Note, that belief-items may be shared, but that each set is different — that individual belief-item is not necessarily shared (common) by all members of the group of people. It may result in the group being separated into sub-groups, as are those members of a church who hold that only men should be priests, or who hold that only unmarried men should be admitted to priesthood — currently a debating point in several religious communities.

Most often we agree to sort beliefs into those we hold in common with others to form a belief-cluster (or dogma?) which unites us into a group and which therefore leave beliefs which lies outside this shared area as “idiosyncrasies”. It often represents a first step towards open-mindedness. United we stand, cry some! Let anthropologists and sociologists characterize us as best they can.

If we ask, “Can a list of ideas everyone shares with others be given a basket-label?” we come up with two answers, not one! There often is a class of foundational ideas but there is often also a basket of transcendental ideas. Foundational ideas are those which refer to experiences which cannot be destroyed by doubt, ideas which are skeptic-proof.

Descartes (c. 1630) comes to mind as the best known advocate of this position, but also Locke (c. 1690) who claimed that all ideas were experience-based and mediated initially through sense-perception: the slate for Locke was clean but also ready to receive messages, unmistakeable imprints.†

Accordingly, foundational ideas refer to those first impressed (imprinted?) on us and which therefore cannot be eradicated or revised, but only be built upon. Some writers have argued that first-impressed does not mean that what subsequently follows is inevitable since there is no rule which states that such material has subsequently to be processed in a particular manner. Such a claim would be like claiming that given flour, water and a few basic ingredients one can only create one type of bread and no cakes. Tell that to a lover of apple strudel. One may say that the structure of the web is not determined by what the web is composed of — as any graphic artist knows. The relationships between materials used to make a painting is only one of many possible relations.

It is widely held that transcendental ideas are those we use to order our experiences. According to Kant (c. 1800) ordering experience requires concepts of “time” and “space” yet these are entities which are independent of the experience that is being ordered, as are the logical categories which are part of the ordering process. The existence of such ordering ideas have always been presumed as givens (Plato wrote extensively about these).

In principle it would be possible to give each experience its own unique name. Nobody knows how this could work. I see a sheep now and I could assign it a sheep/to-day’s date/present clock-time tag! It is a problem in coding and in handling the codes and book-keeping. The next sheep I encounter would carry the name sheep/current date/present clock-time tag. No person I know would be comfortable in such a world, but would invent short cuts — but machines could function quite well in such a world. In other words, it is possible to conceive and to build devices which operate according to such sets of rules.

We don’t know — before plans are actually laid out — how effective and functional such a device would be, or what it would have to look like. At first glance it may work quite well: known as a robot it would operate according to emerging principles of robotics. I don’t know whether robots have to “feel comfortable”, but I suspect not. Robots do not have beliefs in our earlier sense. Vive la difference. Without beliefs they may not go to war!

A robot then would operate according to emerging principles in robotics. Nevertheless robots could change their actions and adapt to their environment — including their self-made environments — but the operating principles need to be worked out in advance — by us, we who are their originators or creators.

*Footnote: I have written a separate blog on corroboration which will be published soon.

†Footnote 1: There is a modern school of thought which reversed this position and holds that all ideas are influenced by the existence of other ideas concurrently in circulation. Contextualism has its roots in Charles Pierce’s philosophy of pragmatism and its most notable advocate in mid-20th century was W. Quine (c. 1950-1990).
Footnote 2: Contextualism was inherently unfriendly to logical empiricism, as publicized earlier by A.J. Ayers (1936) in his widely influential book
Language, Truth and Logic, a book which echoed many of the positions first espoused by the early L. Wittgenstein and subsequently by R. Carnap and members of the Vienna Circle and after the Anschluss in 1938 by readers of the journal Erkentniss and its USA successors).

Seeing is Believing Part 2 – On Plausibility

“Seeing is believing” – or is it?

Remember from Part 1, published a month ago, that my venerable Aunt Ethel claimed, “On my birthday I saw Humpty-Dumpty take a big fall.”

She is not blind, rarely wears glasses, hears quite well, so what did she see? Since none of the witness believe that a person or object corresponding to the description of Humpty-Dumpty exists in the sense that it can be seen wandering around the neighbourhood in the ”real” palpable world, Aunt Ethel’s perception may have played her a trick.

The obvious solution is that she mistook a rather small, round, egg-shaped, bald gentleman ambling around the cricket field as Humpty-Dumpty. Such mis-identifications are common enough. Or perhaps she omitted a word or two and wanted to say, “I saw someone who reminded me of…”

She surely did not mean that there is more than one Humpty-Dumpty since the name is not a tag for a class which has more than one member, but refers to a class which has a defining set of properties which limits it to one member only.

Therefore it is unlike Tweedledum and Tweedledee, which is a class specifically limited to two members. However, the class is defined in a manner which precludes their instantiation. In common parlance, they are fictional characters which have many attributes — in fact, more attributes than may be found in some catalog of attributes but which include that these do not have life-signs, like “amble about of their own free will!” Such attributes specifically preclude that they could be encountered on the street, on a boat, or in an airplane — that is, in living form. We often describe something by stating explicitly what properties it does not have, e.g., an instance of vandalism as being, in part, thoughtless acts, compared to those which were instances of willful destruction.

The general principle is this: There are words and expressions which we use to report to others:

  1. that we have made an encounter of some kind
  2. that what was encountered can be described to others so that others can identify the object of our encounter on the basis of some limited selection of items which we have selected from a larger set than was provided, and
  3. that the identification of the object of the encounter can be facilitated by assigning to it a tag (perhaps a name, like Humpty-Dumpty) by which it then becomes more widely known.

The tag that refers to a class of one only (like Emperor Napoleon I or Emperor Napoleon III or Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein) is all that is needed to enable others to identify the object of my encounter. But what is involved is that the report of my encounter involves a hypothesis to the effect that the encounter has been coded by myself in the hope that it can be readily decoded by others without them making a critical error, a fatal mistake in identification. Since coding means that only some of the attributes of an encounter are contained in the message, the probability of an error in recognition by others is relatively high.

To illustrate this, consider the case where the Mafia boss says “get me Joe Bloomfield” and his henchmen shoot down the hamburger vendor on 10th Street, not the barber on 42nd at Times Square. What the two men have in common is a name, their location in New York City and some other qualities, e.g. gender. So the name served to locate the object or, in this unfortunate case, the target, but the name did not inform whether sufficient attributes were listed to sort it from a mass of other potential targets.

The key issue for discussion is to sort out claims made by others — whether it is the claim made by my Aunt Ethel or by a witness in a court of law — about the relation between what they claim to have witnessed and the plausibility of their testimony. In the case of Aunt Ethel the plausibility of her claim is zero because she failed to acknowledge that she was a witness to “a likeness of” and not a witness to an “encounter with the one and only fictional character described by Lewis Carroll named Humpty-Dumpty.” It is a common enough error made in reporting, but in this case it stands out because the claim is utterly implausible and by inference, also improbable. Aunt Ethel could not have seen what she claimed to have witnessed on the ground of implausibility.

Seeing is Believing — Or Is It?

You don’t see a Belief, but believe what you see — but should you?

“Seeing is believing” — or is it?

“You see one — of many?”

“On my birthday I saw Humpty-Dumpty take a big fall,” says Aunt Ethel, who turned 102 yesterday.

What did she see?

She is not blind, rarely wears glasses, hears quite well. She is acute and astute. We assume that she must have seen something, but did she see what she reported? Since none of her interlocutors believe that a person or object corresponding to the description of Humpty-Dumpty exists in the “real”, palpable world — except in a much-loved story — Aunt Ethel’s perception played her a trick. Or so we conclude.

But if we are wrong, and Aunt Ethel’s sighting can be confirmed, would she be entitled to claim, “I saw a Humpty-Dumpty. Furthermore, there are more Humpty-Dumptys somewhere, in fact, I saw only one of many.”

We are all Aunt Ethels in this respect because we all tend to assume on the basis of one sighting that there are more of the same, unless the sighting has a particularizing, individuating name, or tag. The logic runs: “a class of one is still a class” — call it a sample of a class.

I saw a black swan 10 days ago — ergo, there are black swans, or black swans exist. Not only one, but some (many).

To say “I saw the only black swan 10 days ago” is a very strong hypothesis which runs as follows: “Normally there are no black swans, but I saw one and since I believe what I see, therefore I also believe that black swans exist, but perhaps only one!”

What I have done is to clarify what is meant by holding a belief – by assuming that something which is against the grain can nevertheless be incorporated with a set of expectations which I have come to share – or have unconsciously learned to share — with others.

My Aunt Ethel simply followed a widely-adopted convention when she suggested that seeing a one of something is an acceptable basis for assuming that uniqueness is not “normal” at all, but that a single case is a good and fair ground for assuming that there are more of the same somewhere, some place. Keep counting.