The Indian and the Ice: When to Believe Something

Imagine a woman living in India in the 18th or 19th century[1]. Her cousin, the sailor, has just returned from a trading voyage and, after being suitably plied with food and attention, tells his audience about distant lands where it is so cold that water becomes as hard as wood; you can break off a piece of water and hold it in two fingers.

The woman doesn’t believe him. His story seems utterly fantastical. In her experience, water is never hard. It’s always liquid or gas. As much as she wants to trust her beloved cousin, he’s also a sailor, just like the ones who have passed through town in the past, talking about mermaids and six-headed serpents.

[1] I got this analogy from The Pig that Wants to Be Eaten, by Julian Baggini. He, in turn credits it to David Hume’s On Miracles, though I gather that the analogy of the Indian and the ice didn’t actually appear in On Miracles, but rather arose out of criticism of that work.

Clearly, the Indian woman is wrong: there is such a thing as ice. But I’d argue that she’s wrong for the right reason: being too skeptical, rather than too gullible. And this is one of those cases where reality turns out to be weirder than she could imagine.

Forming an accurate understanding of the world is a balancing act: I don’t want to admit too many untrue ideas, but I don’t want to just disbelieve everything, because I also want to admit true ideas. And I also don’t want to spend my life on the fence about everything. So I use rules of thumb, which don’t always work. And so sometimes, I’m wrong.

Like other atheists and skeptics, I’ve been accused of being closed-minded. The analogy of the Indian woman and the ice is just the sort of thing a critic could point to. More things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy and all that.

But for every such nugget of implausible truth, there are several metric tons of bullshit. The Indian sailor’s story of hard water sounds, to the woman, just like other stories about six-headed monsters, centaurs, mermaids, and floating mountains. And so she’s right to reject it, at least until such time as good evidence comes along.

The cost of believing too much is measured in money and in human lives. Tim Farley keeps a running tally at What’s the Harm?. The cost of believing too little seems, to me, much lower. So it’s a chance I’m willing to take.

I Am Chase and/or Sanborn

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Intuition Pump

So the other day, I found myself inside a philosophical intuition pump. But first, a bit of background:

Qualia (singular quale), in philosophy, are basically the sense of perceiving something. If you’ve ever had that discussion about “how do I know that what you see as red is what I see as red?” or “what’s it like to be someone who actually enjoys Brussels sprouts?”, then you’ve thought about qualia.

Daniel Dennett wrote Quining Qualia, a paper that argues against qualia, or at least against the notion that they’re a useful concept. In it, he introduces several intuition pumps, analogies intended to help us wrap our minds around the problem. One of them is:

Intuition pump #7: Chase and Sanborn. Once upon a time there were two coffee tasters, Mr. Chase and Mr. Sanborn, who worked for Maxwell House […] Along with half a dozen other coffee tasters, their job was to ensure that the taste of Maxwell House stayed constant, year after year. One day, about six years after Mr. Chase had come to work for Maxwell House, he confessed to Mr. Sanborn:

I hate to admit it, but I’m not enjoying this work anymore. When I came to Maxwell House six years ago, I thought Maxwell House coffee was the best-tasting coffee in the world. I was proud to have a share in the responsibility for preserving that flavor over the years. And we’ve done our job well; the coffee tastes just the same today as it tasted when I arrived. But, you know, I no longer like it! My tastes have changed. I’ve become a more sophisticated coffee drinker. I no longer like that taste at all.

Sanborn greeted this revelation with considerable interest. “It’s funny you should mention it, ” he replied, “for something rather similar has happened to me.” He went on:

When I arrived here, shortly before you did, I, like you, thought Maxwell House coffee was tops in flavor. And now I, like you, really don’t care for the coffee we’re making. But my tastes haven’t changed; my . . .tasters have changed. That is, I think something has gone wrong with my taste buds or some other part of my taste-analyzing perceptual machinery. Maxwell House coffee doesn’t taste to me the way it used to taste; if only it did, I’d still love it, for I still think that taste is the best taste in coffee. Now I’m not saying we haven’t done our job well. You other tasters all agree that the taste is the same, and I must admit that on a day-to-day basis I can detect no change either. So it must be my problem alone. I guess I’m no longer cut out for this work.

Chase and Sanborn are alike in one way at least: they both used to like Maxwell House coffee, and now neither likes it. But they claim to be different in another way. Maxwell House tastes to Chase just the way it always did, but not so for Sanborn. But can we take their protestations at face value? Must we? Might one or both of them simply be wrong? Might their predicaments be importantly the same and their apparent disagreement more a difference in manner of expression than in experiential or psy chological state? Since both of them make claims that depend on the reliability of their memories, is there any way to check on this reliability?

So the other evening, I opened a bottle of riesling and poured myself a glass. It was quite good, [insert a bunch of pretentious oenological terms like “fruity” and “bouquet”]. I recapped the bottle and put it back in the fridge.

The next evening, I opened the bottle and poured myself a second glass. But this time, it tasted distinctly more sour than I remembered it.

My first thought was “Well, crap. This means that I have to either drink a whole bottle in one sitting, or pay $12 for one glass of wine.” But I asked frequent Epsilon Clue commenter Fez, who knows more about wine than I do, and he said that my story didn’t match his experience; that he’ll often recork an opened bottle and drink it the next day.

So now I’m not sure what’s going on. It’s possible that this particular bottle went sour overnight. Maybe reds last longer than whites. Maybe whatever I had for dinner those two nights affected my taste buds. Maybe something else.

But what’s interesting to me is that what was originally intended as a hypothetical example to make a philosophical point has become more concrete and personal for me, with literally tens of dollars at stake.