Forgive me while I geek out for a minute. Most people that read this blog will have made it through at least geometry in high school in their mathematical studies. This is the first level in mathematical education where we learn how to put together a cohesive system of looking at things in a logical and precise fashion. If you remember, you did proofs – lots of proofs. This was how you built the system, each statement that became an important working statement was proven logically, from previously proven statements. But if you remember thoroughly, you will member there were 5 “postulates.“ These were statements that could not be proven but were simply “assumed” to be true and from which all other geometrical statements are proven.
The postulates are not arbitrary, they are formulated from a) massive and collective observation and b) an inability to prove them accumulated over the millenia. To build a comprehensive logical structure such as geometry you have to start somewhere. So you start by looking at the world around you and making statements about it. You compare your observations with others to make sure they see the same thing – then you set about trying to prove all your observations to a point where the statements that you cannot prove are minimized as much as possible, but such statements seem to have an inherent “truth” because while you cannot prove them they are always observed to be true. These are the basic stuff from which everything else is built.
“What if the postulates are not true?” is a question that every reasonably serious student of mathematics has asked since the list of postulates was first formulated. Well, pretty much everything we understand about the world around us falls apart. From geometry we have meticulously built higher forms of math and they are the language of science. If the postulates are not true we could not have gotten to the moon, or built a building much more complex than a mud hut (much of Euclid’s initial work was in support of the construction of the marvelous and ancient stone buildings we find in Greece still today) or just about anything else technological that we rely upon today.
There are non-Euclidean geometries (geometry with different postulates) in math and in recent decades they have even proven somewhat useful in forming theories in the very weird realms of science like quantum mechanics. But when you do stuff in the world we live in and experience on a daily basis without the aid of instruments, Euclidean geometry (what you learned in high school) works very, very well. The postulates are true in any experientially meaningful sense of the word true. We may be able to conceive of other postulates, but our daily lives tell us that the ones we have come to know and work with are functionally true. Those non-Euclidean concepts, interesting though they are, just don’t work in any experience you and I can have.
This thoughts occurred to me as I read Tom Coburn in this morning’s WSJ:
The culture that Mr. Obama campaigned against, the old kind of politics, teaches politicians that repetition and “message discipline”—never straying from using the same slogans and talking points—can create reality, regardless of the facts. Message discipline works if the goal is to win an election or achieve a short-term political goal. But saying that something is true doesn’t make it so. When a misleading message ultimately clashes with reality, the result is dissonance and conflict. In a republic, deception is destructive. Without truth there can be no trust. Without trust there can be no consent. And without consent we invite paralysis, if not chaos.
It seems that in how we conduct our public affairs we sometimes get a bit too interested in the “non-Euclidean” stuff. We can conceive of it, we can find it fascinating, we can even experiment with it, but in the end it just does not work. The practical truth of the postulates always seems to carry the day.
Faith in the Almighty plays the role of postulate in our society. Of course there will be many branches that spring from that root, but that root is what holds up the entire structure. I read Coburn’s words on the heal of reading this from the Bible this morning (emphasis added):
I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,
the praises of the Lord,
according to all that the Lord has granted us,
and the great goodness to the house of Israel
that he has granted them according to his compassion,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely.” (Isaiah 63:7-8)
This is heavy stuff for New Year’s Eve, a day that is supposed to be about celebration. But celebration seems difficult when we live in a time where people seem to think the postulates, as Coburn points out, are arbitrary. Obamacare is a glaring and on-going painful example of that. As Jim Geraghty pointed out yesterday:
So . . . we’re still ending 2013 with more people having lost their insurance than gained it.
It just is not working. Obamacare is a wonderful, even interesting, idea, but it is from the realms of non-Euclidean geometry. It may even have some internal logical consistency, but it just does not work in the daily world.
But there is another glaring example - Sunday’s NYTimes’ report on Benghazi. This blog will not attempt to dissect the facts reported, we’ll leave that up to the professionals. Nor will we assume political motivation, although the political convenience of the piece is extraordinary. But what seems clear as I read or listen to discussion after discussion with people in Congress investigating the incident is that it is not the whole story; it is not a complete and thorough investigation. Consider this from the interview with Congressman Lynn Westmoreland just linked:
HH: Congressman, Hugh here. Did Mr. Kirkpatrick attempt to talk to you?
HH: Did he attempt to talk to any of your colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee?
LW: Sir, I don’t know that.
That pretty well defines incomplete investigation on the reporters part. That puts the report in the realm of non-Euclidean geometry – interesting and even internally consistent – but not necessarily comporting with reality of daily experience. Certainly not tested against it.
Even more disturbing is when people get all wrapped up in their concepts, the foundations that replace the postulates can be horrifying. For some, race is the root from which all things spring. When that happens – stuff like this happens:
The laughing starts almost immediately in the MSNBC segment.
But as the host and her guests yuk it up, I wanted to cringe.
The object of their derision, cloaked as it was in pointed humor?
A baby. A black baby, to be precise, being held on Mitt Romney’s knee.
This was Romney’s adopted grandson, in a big, professionally shot family photo. And yes, Melissa Harris-Perry kept cooing about how the baby was cute. The real target, for her and the guests, was Mitt.
As in, isn’t it funny that this white Mormon with a white family would find among his clan a black baby.
When we view our postulates as fungible we start to run into all sorts of problems. This is deeper than culture wars or political parties. This is the soul of the nation. It is hard to celebrate a year just past where we have been bombarded with news of people in charge that have interesting theories totally disconnected from real life. A year where the people that bring us the news have been shown again and again to view the world from inside their non-Euclidean theories rather than observe the world as it actually is.
But the same faith that is our postulates tells us that tomorrow will be brighter. I choose to celebrate that.