Errare humanum est

After so many years distant from my university Philosophy courses, I have to admit that I’d come to believe that rationality is a process designed for avoiding mistakes. That to err is to have made a miscalculation in its undertaking. And given that we humans are prone to frequent miscalculations -or, to adopt the aphorism of our time, fall prey to unintended consequences- what does that say about our acumen, let alone our wisdom? Does our seemingly inherent ability to take the wrong path or deviate from the planned course of action, mean that we are too easily distracted? Too readily deceived? Or that we weren’t designed to act rationally?

These failures suggest that, far from being rational, we are at best, credulous about our abilities… or does it? To be able to be deceived, it is necessary to have arrived at some sort of  expectation of what is correct or appropriate in the first place. One cannot be fooled, if one doesn’t understand anything about what is happening. In a way, then, the ability to err, suggests that one has already developed a theory about how it should be -that the failure was not meaningless, in other words. Reasoning that comes to a different conclusion than one that has been widely accepted may still be reasoning.

In a democracy, there are usually several options from which to choose, but the outcome of a vote does not mean the other choices were wrong. It does not invalidate them, nor imply that they were irrational -it merely postpones their serious consideration to another time. That things change over the years does not negate the past; it does not suggest that those living in those benighted years were unable to think properly.

Many of these thoughts were highlighted in a somewhat obtuse essay I came across in Aeon written by Daniel Ward, a lawyer and PhD candidate in Cambridge University: https://aeon.co/essays/i-think-therefore-i-make-mistakes-and-change-my-mind

He writes of a dog watching a card trick being performed. ‘It will just ignore what it perceives as meaningless markings on bits of cardboard. Hence it is immune to deception.’ It has no idea what to expect, because it has no idea what is going on. There is no error in the dog’s mind, presumably, because ‘Susceptibility to error validates rather than detracts from rationality.’

For example, ‘Those who study the human visual system also draw a link between the capacity for error and the capacity for thought.’ But, the ability to be fooled by an optical illusion ‘demonstrates the success rather than the failure of the visual system. That your brain occasionally makes this kind of mistake is testament to the fact that it is doing complex, intelligent things that go beyond merely absorbing incoming sensory data. The antithesis of the view that normal, intelligent people are susceptible to error is a view that treats people as infallible.’ And we certainly aren’t that: ‘incapable of error in a wide range of matters, ranging from day-to-day decisions about how we spend our money to ideological commitments… Treating an individual’s attitudes and preferences as givens – as matters beyond debate or criticism – might seem to promote human dignity by forcing us to treat all views as equally worthy of respect. But such an outlook is likely, if anything, to have the opposite effect. This is because taking seriously a person’s capacity to make mistakes is critical to taking seriously their capacity for rationality. Only by recognising that people are capable of error can we properly value anyone’s goals or engage in rational debate.’

After all, if we had to assume that a rational person with whom we disagreed could not have made a mistake in their reasoning, then we could not depend on an intelligent debate to resolve the issue -only force. No, rationality does not preclude error in and of itself… And that’s okay.

“You do realize that I’ve put my shopping bag on there, don’t you…?” The elderly lady glared at me, and made no effort to move the bag from what I could see was the only empty seat on the bus.

Her statement was obviously correct and I had neither desire nor rhetorical skills, to contradict her assertion. I did, however, want to sit down. It had been a long day, and an even longer wait for the already crowded bus.

I decided to meet her challenging expression with a smile and a shrug, but to show her I hadn’t really given up, I continued to stand beside the almost-empty seat and waited for guilt to wreak its havoc on her conscience. Unfortunately she retrieved her eyes and sent them to scout the scenery outside her window. I was just another tree in a forest she did not deign to enter.

I sighed and was about to resign myself to a journey spent swaying on my feet, when I suddenly remembered something, and decided to try my luck again. “I imagine your bag is quite heavy,” I started, pretending I just wanted to engage her in idle conversation. Actually, I was hoping to cash in on a program about logical argumentation in a podcast I’d downloaded from the BBC.

She dragged her eyes back from the window and plonked them on one of my ears. Her lips said nothing, but her face told me to mind my own business.

“My backpack is also heavy,” I continued, hoping I could build on the premise. “And,” I added, trying to twinkle my eyes, “there’s a bit of room left on the seat…” I cleverly added the ellipsis to show there was a conclusion inherent in my prologue.

Her eyes continued to grill me, but her forehead was beginning to wrinkle -so were her lips, for that matter. “And you think that I will be convinced by a faulty syllogism?”

“Which premise was faulty?” I suddenly realized that my memory of the podcast was sketchy at best, so I hoped I had understood the thrust of her rebuttal.

A tiny smile appeared on her face. “It was more the assumption that my bag was heavy, than that because there was room left on the seat, your also-heavy backpack deserved a place beside it.”

I thought about that for a moment. Did I flaw the first chance I’d had for engaging in a public rhetorical challenge? Did I waste the podcast?

I must have looked perplexed because her smile suddenly blossomed and she feathered her shopping bag onto her lap as if it were almost empty. “You passed the test,” she said and chuckled.

“Test…?”

Her eyes tapped briefly on my face and then flew off to other perches on the outside of the window. I wondered if she’d read the same article in Aeon.

Baa Baa Black Sheep…

Okay, I’ll admit I’m intrigued by investigations that attempt to prove things the rest of us simply take for granted. Things that seem so obvious, that I wonder why they ever extracted them from the background for analysis. When you live in a forest, why would you single out a tree?

Do babies do better when they are loved? I can’t even imagine the need to ask that question, but I suppose we only see the world through the filter of the prevailing ethos of our society. It was not so very long ago, for example, that the psychologist Harry Harlow devised an experiment that, although cruel to contemporary eyes, was an honest attempt to explore what it is that infants need. He separated infant monkeys from their mothers and placed them in isolation in little cages. He then gave them a choice between a metal dummy holding a bottle of milk, or a soft, fuzzy cloth dummy without milk. And, no surprise, the babies chose the soft cloth dummy so they could cling to it. A mother is more than a source of food –much more.

An article in the BBC news last year caught my eye. It posited ‘[…]that babies need to feel safe, secure and loved for brain connections to be properly formed to enable them to learn effectively.’ http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-38002105

This was suggested by a study from Cambridge University in England that utilized brain scans. The researchers scanned the brains of babies and their mothers while the two were interacting in learning activities. ‘The early indications are that when the brain waves of mothers and babies are out of sync, the babies learn less well. But when the two sets of brainwaves are in tune they seem to learn more effectively. Dr Victoria Leong, who is leading the research, has discovered that babies learn well when their mums speak to them in a soothing sing-song voice which she calls “motherese”. Dr Leong’s research shows that nursery rhymes are a particularly good way for the mums in her study to get in sync with their babies.’

Fascinating, but taking it even further, ‘[…] babies respond better when there is prolonged eye contact. Mums who sang nursery rhymes looking directly at their babies held their attention significantly better than those who gazed away, even occasionally.’

I recognize how important it might seem to subject the intuitively obvious to some form of scientific scrutiny –just in case, as it were- and I am all for it. Who would dare question what is plain to see and even easier to hear every day in my waiting room? Certainly not me. But sometimes I am, well, surprised at the venue.

I first met Janice in the delivery suite late one night when I was the obstetrician on call. The midwife was concerned about the progress of labour and had asked me to consult on her client. After examining Janice, I had reassured them both and counselled patience and then, with smiles all around, had left to attend to other matters. The midwife later informed me that she delivered a healthy baby boy only a few minutes after I’d left, and so I assumed I’d probably never see Janice again.

So I was surprised when, a month or so later, Janice showed up in my waiting room. At first I didn’t recognize her, but she was singing to her baby and the voice sounded familiar. It’s funny how some things seem inextricably linked to people –a mannerism for one, or a facial expression for another… For Janice, it was undoubtedly her voice. As a small, even petite, woman, I suppose my expectation would be for her sound to match –thin, soft, fragile, perhaps- but like the Pacific wren, the volume far exceeded the source. As did the duration and enthusiasm with which she serenaded her infant. In fact I stood, in thrall, just behind the front desk, not wanting to interrupt her song by inviting her into my office.

Eventually, and not without some concern about interfering with the obvious bonding process, but seeing the baby snuggled contentedly in her arms with his eyes closed, I decided to intervene.

“Janice,” I said, walking over to where she was sitting, and the baby seemed to stir.

She knifed me with her eyes, and a finger flew to her lips to caution me to be silent. She wound down the nursery rhyme slowly and deliberately, all the while gazing intently at her sleeping baby. She seemed to be assessing his breathing pattern and only when she had decided that it accorded with her expectations did she rise and follow me into my office down the hall. I could tell by her subsequent shrug that she hadn’t meant to be rude, or to keep me waiting, but was merely trying to stay in sync with her sleeping infant. That, of course, was fine with me –it’s hard to talk with a patient when her baby is crying.

She settled in a chair by my desk almost by brail; she was so intent on her baby, her eyes never left his face. “I’ve just fed him,” she explained with a smile that only caressed the infant, so I’m not sure whether I was supposed to share. “I think he’ll sleep now,” she added with another misdirected smile.

I decided to respond with a smile of my own, this one directed at Janice, however –a sort of ‘teach by example’, I suppose.

But before it even reached her, the baby opened his eyes and stared quietly at his mother, contentment written across his face like a tattoo. It immediately galvanized her into action, however, and she began to sing another nursery rhyme and rock him in her arms. He obviously enjoyed it and stared lovingly into her eyes as if there were no other reality. No other world. He seemed to be spellbound by the endlessly repeated ‘Baa baa black sheep’ song although after a few minutes, I have to say I became more interested in the rhythmic, hypnotic nodding of her head and felt myself occasionally fighting to focus my eyes.

I began to wonder what the end point of her singing would be. The baby seemed content, he wasn’t crying, or squirming and yet on and on she sang. I tried a few times, unsuccessfully, to ask her why she had come to visit me in the office; the midwife usually follows her clients post-partum unless there is a problem. But each time I spoke, the baby would open his eyes, and Janice would risk a quick glare at me and resume rocking him with yet another song.

Finally, she stood up and looked at me with an embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry, doctor,” she said, heading for the door. “I just can’t seem to settle him today… I’ll have to make another appointment,” she added before launching into ‘Three Blind Mice.’

As she disappeared down the hall, and the song faded into the distance, I realized I never did discover why she’d been sent to see me. But I felt grateful for that final smile, however. Sometimes it’s the little things that matter…