Thinking nice and thinking right.

Julia Galef recently wrote a post questioning if there’s an actuality to Math or is Math just an invention to ease our understanding of the world. I am not a “Math Person”, so it’s not a topic that I would see myself interested in. But as I continued reading her essay, it made me more intrigued than I thought I would be.

Julia feels that Math is more likely than not an invention as too many of it’s theorems conflicts with each other, so in support of the hypothesis, Julia used the contradicting example of 0^0. The conflict happens when one theorem states that zero raised to any power equals zero but another theorem says that anything raised to the power of zero equals one. So with both theorems taken to be axioms in Math, does 0^0 = 0 or does 0^0 = 1?

Now Julia isn’t an expert in Math so she approached google, which confirms mathematicians in practice act as if 0^0 = 1. But the answer doesn’t satisfy her as she’s aware that mathematicians are only practicing this approach so to avoid further controversies, such as the Binominal Theorem that will need to be revised in more tedious ways if 0^0=0 instead. So to curb her curiosity on the matter, she wrote to her friend, a Math student and her response is to my complete amusement.

Here’s the witty reply, “There are some further reasons why using $0^0 = 1$ is preferable, but they boil down to that choice being more useful than the alternative choices, leading to simpler theorems, or feeling more “natural” to mathematicians. The choice is not “right”, it is merely nice.”

Even unrelated to Maths, the last sentence was something very witty to ponder on, the cognitive bias of thinking right and nice. If reputable mathematicians can fall victims to such an error, doesn’t it make us more vulnerable to it in everyday life?

The first thing that springs to me is of course religion. I had a very interesting encounter with a Muslim and Christian friend sometime back. As they were making prayers before meal, I casually commented that although their prayers may be different, technically, both of them are praying to the same person, the Judaism God. And I further commented that the Qu’ran is largely like the Bible if you read deeply to it and what separates both religion is the timeline it was discovered(Islam was discovered 600years after Christianity) making them they see their prophets differently(Eg. Christian sees Jesus as the Son of God but Muslim see’s him as a regular prophet whereas Muhammad is the chosen messenger by God).

I admit I was tactless and it wasn’t a conversation meant to be brought up over dinner top. But at the same time little did I expect their reaction. Appalled by my unholy(but factual) words, the Muslim sat at her seat silent as the Christian retorted my statements aggressively. Being the bigot that I still am, I didn’t stop and continued to quote history to support my stance. The Christians didn’t stop either, he invoked many clauses in the Bible saying they are of complete differences but what we didn’t realize is, the Muslim is actually silently weeping amidst our argument.

My friend that was outside of the argument realized that soon enough and put an end to our bickering by saying, “You can think what you want, he can think what he want, there is no right or wrong. Just stop it.” Now I do understand her concerns over the emotional trauma our Muslim friend is suffering from across the table but by claiming what she did, is she thinking nice or thinking right?

The similar cognitive error may also occur in arguments with large pieces of grey areas like abortion or homosexual rights. Should abortion be legalized for example, since it’s a problem that deals with personal moral values and conscience, there probably is no definite truth. So in this scenario if two friends were arguing on the topic, it’s perfectly acceptable for it to be concluded subjectively.

But what if we tweaked the question a little and made it, “Is the legalization of abortion a positive influence or negative one to society?” Now although the root of the subject is the same, the argument should no longer be revolved around moral conscience but instead, the breaking down of it’s influence both positive and negatively. And influence is something that can be weighted and scrutinized, one must surely inch over the other. In short, this is a question that’s capable of an objective conclusion, however, it’s very likely for it to be concluded the same way as the previous. Why?

Because the although the questioned was changed, the subject isn’t, on “abortion”. A sensitive subject considering that many of today’s dominating religion are strict against it. So to avoid harsh feeling amongst friends, we dismiss the argument in a pacifist manner by concluding it’s subjective. But are we then thinking right or thinking nice about it? Is the question a sensitive one therefore it’s subjective or is the question subjective therefore it’s sensitive?

Sensitive questions isn’t the only ones that suffer from similar cognitive bias, tedious questions are equally prone as well. For example, can science determine moral values? By the first look of it, given the shady definition of what “Moral Values” essentially are, it’s likely a question that ends subjectively. But assuming that moral values were standardized and prefixed with a firm definition, should the question be concluded the same way? No. But will it?

Very possibly since it’s a tedious question that requires us to hold Phds in it’s respective fields and be digging mountains into mines before we can reach an agreeable and objective conclusion. But knowing the trouble that we will need to hurdle through doesn’t make the question a subjective one does it? Are we then thinking nice or thinking right by concluding it is?

I can go on to quote a million more examples that falls victim to the category of nice thinking but that would be pointless. Everyone wants to be nice these days and thinking right is just being anal by general standard’s. However I hope my post had been an enlightenment in triggering your thoughts on subjectivity and thinking nice.