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The Naturalist on the crucial difference between fact and fantasy

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From The Naturalist

About the most crucial distinction we can make as cognitive creatures is between appearance and reality, between how things seem and how they really are, between subjectivity and objectivity. We learn, often the hard way, that our impressions and cognitions are sometimes biased, truncated, or in the worst case simply missing. We reach what we assume is the bottom of a stairway, stepping confidently out onto the floor, only to find ourselves plunging yet another step down. We’re sure Congress will pass the (first) 700 billion dollar bailout bill, only to discover in the closing minutes that Republican constituencies will have none of it. For a century we blithely go about our energy consuming, carbon-emitting ways only to discover we’ve been heating up the planet. It seemed our way of life was sustainable; in reality it wasn’t. It seemed (at least to some of us insouciant investors) that unregulated mortgage-based securities could coexist with a stable financial system, that they represented real wealth, but in reality they didn’t. In countless matters great and small we stand corrected in our perceptions and assumptions by feedback from the world. With some notable exceptions to be discussed below, we are perforce commonsense empiricists, wanting to operate under the guidance of an adequate model of reality so that our projects come to fruition. The possibility that we could be mistaken in our modeling should always be present to us, prompting us to gather data in advance of action. If we’re smart we test the waters – depth, purity, temperature – before diving in.

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Written by Richard Wilson

November 25, 2008 at 3:04 pm

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