Sheep in Scotland, and bullet-biting

“I’ve burned my own house down, the torch is in my hand.
Now I’ll burn down the house of anyone who wants to follow me” — The Bijak, Kabir


A philosopher-joke runs like this:

An engineer, an experimental physicist, a theoretical physicist, and a philosopher were hiking through the hills of Scotland. Cresting the top of one hill, they see, on top of the next, a black sheep. The engineer says: “What do you know, the sheep in Scotland are black.” “Well, *some* of the sheep in Scotland are black,” replies the experimental physicist. The theoretical physicist considers this for a moment and says “Well, at least one of the sheep in Scotland is black.” “Well,” the philosopher responds, “on one side, anyway.”

You will notice it is possible to go further in the one-up-man-ship game emphasized in the joke. For instance, a philosopher’ (or a pseudo-quantum-collapse-philosopher, if you will) may say “One side of the sheep is black when you look at it”.

Let us go exactly opposite to the trend highlighted in the joke in analysing it. What the joke captures is a tendency I often encounter: the tendency to steer clear of that beast called falsifiability

Notice how the ‘hierarchical heros‘ of our joke steer ever so clear of abstraction and universalizing, and by doing so, carefully disentangle themselves from falsifiability.

Notice however, that falsifiability is intimately coupled with hypothesis-building, and by consequence – learning something new, above-and-beyond what is experientially true at this point. A non falsifiable statement is content-free, contains no new information, or doesn’t impinge on the real world.

Metaphorically speaking, it behooves us to leave our safe havens of terra firma and step on the rocky boats of falsifiable hypotheses, if we ever intend to discover unknown and exotic worlds.

Bite the bullet. It holds the sweet juice of anagnorisis.

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15 comments
  1. Chi-Ling said:

    Oh, that joke is so funny, and so very nerdy at the same time. I had yet to consider the connection between one-upping and limiting falsifiability. I like the general direction of where your thoughts lead.

  2. Unawoken said:

    Thanks chi-ling 🙂

  3. Gargi said:

    Nice post.
    As I understand it, there are 2 seemingly opposite things you talked about: generalizing and not being afraid of being wrong/’false’, AND stating exactly what you perceive which is always ‘right’ (because your receptors are the all that you can rely on, for being right).

    But isn’t ‘learning something new’ often a result of carefully observing and stating what you already observe? In a very simplistic case, many people saw the apple fall. And it was only after someone stated THAT which he saw in a manner that made it easier to ‘learn something new’ ie gravity.

    Well, I am not sure if I understand you correctly (or if such a thing is even possible 😉 )

  4. Unawoken said:

    Hi Gargi,
    Thank you for the comment. Stating something that is exactly true is making a true observation of how things are. When we abstract out a generalization that could be true or false, then we are speculating about things we haven’t yet observed, and are essentially laying out a path for further discoveries..

    I do think you understand correctly :), and if such a thing is not possible, then I need to work on something this end..

  5. pseudopseudointellectual said:

    “I’ve burned my own house down, the torch is in my hand.
    Now I’ll burn down the house of anyone who wants to follow me” — The Bijak, Kabir

    To follow Kabir would imply burning your own house down, then Kabir is jobless 😉

    But pray explain these lines or what you interpret of them.

  6. Unawoken said:

    pseudopseudointellectual, people carry baggage around. They are staked to frameworks (things have to appeal to me in a particular way before I welcome them — the litmus check), securities (jobs, lifestyles, families) etc. etc. Kabir sees something they do not see, because he has burnt his sanctuaries. By offering to burn your’s he doesn’t will ill on you, but he is offering something that requires being ungrounded to realize.

    I haven’t used the lines literally, of course.

  7. pseudopseudointellectual said:

    Ah, now I see it. It is a beautiful thought.

    Did you come to said conclusion about those lines or is that what Kabir originally intended?

    With a metaphorical medium like painting or poetry one never really knows what the artist intends to say, does one?

    Don’t mean to hijack the post, feel free to shoot down this digression!

  8. Unawoken said:

    It is my interpretation..
    Yeah, true, there is no way to tell, for sure..

  9. Chi-Ling said:

    That is a very hopeful perspective. I am impressed.

  10. unawoken said:

    “To read these books in this way is an exercise in self-knowledge. Reading them in this way carries certain risks. Risks that are both personal and political. Risks that ever student of political philosophy has known. These risks spring from the fact that philosophy teaches us and unsettles us by confronting us with what we already know. There’s an irony. The difficulty in this course consists in the fact that it teaches what you already know. It works by taking what we know from familiar unquestioned settings and making it strange.

    Philosophy estranges us from the familiar, not by supplying new information, but by inviting and provoking a new way of seeing. But, and here’s the risk – Once the familiar turns strange, it’s never quite the same again. Self-knowledge is like lost innocence: however unsettling you find it, it can never be unthought, or unknown. What makes this enterprise difficult, but also riveting, is that moral and political philosophy is a story, and you don’t know where the story will lead but what you do know is that the story is about you. Those are the personal risks.

    And in the face of these risks there is a characteristic evasion. The name of the evasion is skepticism. It is the idea ‘we didn’t resolve once and for all either the cases or the principles we were arguing when we began! And if Aristotle and Mill and Locke and Kant haven’t solved these questions after all of these years, who are we to think that we here in Sanders’ theater, over the course of the semester, can resolve them? And may be it is just a matter of each person having his or her own principles and there is nothing more to be said about it. No way of reasoning’ — That’s the evasion. The evasion of skepticism. To which I would offer the following reply:

    It’s true. These questions have been debated for a very long time. But the very fact that they have recurred and persisted may suggest that though they are impossible in one sense, they are unavoidable in another.And the reason they are unavoidable – the reason they are inescapable – is that we live some answer to these questions every day. So skepticism – just throwing up your hands and giving up on moral reflection is no solution. Immanuel Kant described very well the problem with skepticism when he wrote ‘Skepticism is a resting place for human reason, where it can reflect upon its dogmatic wanderings, but it is no dwelling place for permanent settlement. Simply to acquiese in skepticism can never suffice to overcome the restlessness of reason.”

    – Michael Sandel
    https://thingsundone.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/thought-experiments/

  11. “The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”
    — Gloria Steinem

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