Sunday, December 20, 2009

Russell's Table

Note: These two tables are of the same dimension

In the The problems of philosophy written by Bertrand Russell he asks "is there any knowledge in the world that is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? To make our difficulties plain, let us concentrate our attention on the table...if several people are looking at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same two distribution of colours, because no two can see from exactly the same point of view."

Yes consider the table. Seriously? Russell's concern over differences in seeing tables strikes me as eerily similar to mathematicians who worry about normal distribution deviations when there are more pressing concerns staring them in the face.

I remember the problem of whether we could trust that the table was "really" there being presented to me first when I was studying European history at high school. I remember thinking at the the time that it was a ridiculous notion, and I still think the the problem as defined by Russell is ridiculous, however his notion and methodology of doubting his senses is not. I appreciate the work Bertrand and intend to expand on the problem and re-frame it.

If there is a sense I am not going to doubt it is one that is very old taking in data and representing something that is inanimate and unadaptive. Variations in viewing tables between members of the human population are going to be small, so small as to not matter(barring those who lost their sight or are color blind). However if you take the the notion of doubting sight and put it the right environment, suddenly Russell's concerns become quite useful.

Dylan(a twenty something northwesterner) walks into his local supermarket. He is on the hunt for his weekly supply of food. The American supermarket is the perfect example of an environment that has catered to the over selection of sight. As Dylan walks down the aisles all the food looks quite delicious and much of it also probably tastes good. However much of what he sees is indeed in need of being doubted. The entire middle of the grocery store showcases not the actual food he is going to eat were he to purchase something from this section, but pictures on boxes of the food. Want to know what's in it? Well then read the label. Yes language will tell us everything! Except for the fact that language until recently has never been used as a tool of food selection. The words we use like calorie, fat, carbohydrate, etc. all say something about a food, but we seem to think that we can capture everything about something in a word. No sooner has the word been villified as it later seems to come through a redemption. Fat is bad, carbs are bad, calories are bad. Later it's Good Calories Bad Calories, some fats are good for you, or natural sugars(like those found in fruit) are good.

The whole thing seems an elaborate opportunity for deception. Have we ever thought that we should stop thinking in language about our food choices? Alas we need to to uncover the damage that has already been done.

As a paleo dieter/EF'er Dylan buys virtually nothing from the center of the grocery store. He has wisened up and learned to buy from the outsides. Less deception there but there is still the opportunity for some.

Consider this nugget of information from the pages of Bernd Heinrich's book Winter World "Fruit's nutritional content depends on the season for which their dispersal is tailored. Thus although the highest-quality(highest energy content) fruits contain fat and sugar, that food(especially fat) causes rapid fruit spoilage due to microbes. Low fat and sugar contents, as well as high acidity and low water content all help to prolong branch life.....The tomatoes we get at the super market may be a close analogy. They are selected for long-distance travel from California and long shelf life, unlike the garden variety we grow for taste. As with wild fruit the nutrients that make them taste good also cause their rapid spoilage, and our commercial varieties of fruits are selected, like many winter fruits, for longevity."

High acidity taxes the kidney to produce a countering balancing "base" substance from reserves. Dylan has learned that eating is a dynamic process of expending energy to gain energy. Winter fruit bears a short term cost(whatever energy Dylan's body has to direct to the kidneys that doesn't get directed elsewhere.)

So Dylan can not even use his rule "shop around the outside of the store" exclusively an be entirely confident in his senses. Some might add the rule "buy local", but even if a fruit is local you may not live in an area that can produce high fat fruit. So your local fruit will be selected for the ability to survive winter giving it the same sort of characteristics as those shipped from far away. What is the solution?

Dylan must learn to understand the dynamics of evolution, signaling systems and the ways in which people are consciously and unconsciously fooled by reality.

When selecting food Dylan needs to see bright colors and use his sense of taste to sense an acceptable fat/sugar ratio. Some parts of his mind may get the feeling that something is "too sweet" or "too tart". He also needs language to document, experiment, and remember the good and bad choices he has made.

He needs the knowledge that in evolution what works in some instances may not work as well in others. Perhaps shipping is fast enough in some instances so that the fruit he finds is of the good high fat variety. Perhaps some canned tomatoes, may be better at certain points of the year than those he could buy that are fresh. Perhaps during some periods he will have to intermittently fast.

As humans we have created an environment with the supermarket, where the dimension of selection is primarily sight and language. When you understand what some things have to go through in order to look good in that environment(versus similar fruit found in more natural settings), Bertrand Russell's Table suddenly becomes an interesting problem that you confront quite often. I have simply added some fruit on top of it.

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