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Re: OT: Doubting Thomas: was "Introducing Myself"

From:Tristan McLeay <conlang@...>
Date:Thursday, February 17, 2005, 8:53
On 17 Feb 2005, at 4.55 pm, Sally Caves wrote:

> What are the odds that a three foot piece of metal as thick as a > finger and > propelled by a rocket will fly through your head missing the major > arteries, > the areas that control autonomic functioning, the speech center, the > hippocampus, emerge between the two lobes themselves, and you'll live > to > tell about it? About a trillion to one?
The odds of a three foot piece of metal as thick as a finger existing is minute, so once we've accounted for that and it going through someone's skull in the first place, chances are pretty decent that it'll miss *all* of the autonomic functioning centres, language centres and the hippocampus, if it's travelling generally upwards from an eye. The brain isn't arranged with terribly much terribly vital in the periphery. That'd be stupid. In particular, if it's going into his right eye and travelling upwards, leaving between the two lobes, unless his brain is particularly odd, it's *going* to miss the language centres---we have two of them, but unlike most of the things we have two of, they're both in the same hemisphere, almost always the left. It would be more unbelievable if there was an addendum to the story: 'But unfortunately for him, Phineas was one of the few people who has their language centres in the right hemisphere, and his ability to speak was greatly reduced after the event' (he'd still be able to understand language though, probably). The brain is a completely amazing part of our body, but it's not surprising he didn't die; after all, the brain of a rat is incredibly much smaller, but it keeps the rat alive just as well our massive brains do. I will, however, refrain from providing a statistic regarding the odds of this happening. But if there's say 6.5 billion people alive, and more people alive today than have existed, there can't've been more than 13 billion people. If it's happened once, and we can generalise from past experience, it'd be a mere thirteen billion to one :) --- Of course, that's not a good way to do statistics :)
> This argument about the P, too, raises some interesting questions > about the > nature of belief. Do we have to be present at a scene to believe it?
I see no reason to doubt the story of Phineas. What I know of the brain seems to make it seem quite reasonable, and if it didn't immortalise Phineas someone else would've been immortalised instead. Of course, the people who've told me what I know about the brain are the same people who've told me about Phineas Gage, and use it as an example of the nature of the brain, so perhaps I can't trust my knowledge :) OTOH, being there at the scene makes it harder to apply belief to the event; if you saw it, you know it, and you have no reason to merely believe it.
> Can > we trust the accounts of medical men of the mid-nineteenth century > before > photography was widely used to document things? Or are we to believe > that > everything uncommonly strange is a hoax before we are present to put > our > fingers in the wound itself? For me, the fact that Phineas Gage > survived > the accident with memory and intellect intact is about as credible as > the > Pirahas and their equally strange development, which may be due just > as much > to chance and environment. We don't need science fiction to find this > world > strange enough. > > There's a wonderful book out there called _Doubt_ by Jennifer Hecht. > Doubt > keeps us honest, to some degree. Doubt allows us to change. Taken to > extreme, though, we can doubt that the astronauts landed on the moon, > or > that the earth revolves around the sun or is older than 6000 years. > So I > guess my question is... what fixed notions do we have about human > tribal > behavior, or human language and cognition that we don't want unsettled?
From what I know of human language and cognition, I'm prepared to believe that pretty much anything is possible. We have a few structures that have no details, but these get filled in with details so that become so natural that they do become real limitations to the people involved, and so that the Pirahan seem more than plausible to me. What I mean is that I find the English language and counting in base 10 so natural that if I'd lived in a bubble for all my life till now, it seems very likely I'd utter disbelief in the notion that anyone could possibly *not* speak English, *not* count in base 10, (internally) and yet still be called a normal human being. -- Tristan.