Let me convince you that a tree doesn't make a sound

If a tree falls and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  After you're done laughing, let's think about this. This is not a stupid question: it brings up fundamental questions that are still fundamental, even for scientifically minded people.

Before indulging in The Matrix hypothesis and talking about how the external world doesn't exist, I'm going to start with what's not controversial. First, animals perceive the world differently than humans (some drastically different). Second, among humans there is variation (due to various physical and psychological causes). Conclusion: the external world and the world we actually perceive are two different things. It is interpreted, processed, constructed, measured--by our sense organs and brain. In other words, the diagram above is a fiction; we do not see an exact copy of the tree "out there"; our eyes are not giant gaping windows that "let the tree in" so to speak. Naive Realism is false. Again, not controversial so far.

And if you're still not convinced that your eyes are playing tricks on you and that your sense organs are all sacks of shit, consider two more facts: (1) sense organs evolved (like everything) and thus survival are their main concern--truthful representation of the external world is not necessary their concern at all. Whether you see the berry as white or red, all it cares about is what works. As Williams James would say, the truth is what works. For us believing folk, a nice way to put it would be: God made you so that you would survive rather than be an astrophysicist--be happy He did. (2) sense organs detect change more than anything. Vision is not like a video camera that is always recording everything like a faithful steward, not even close.  Not to mention that memory, state of mind, personality, beliefs, language, societal norms--they can all affect the way we perceive things, literally. Let's stop here.

Representational Realism

So what is happening here? Most common sense people will say there is a physical tree "out there", made of physical stuff (atoms) having certain fundamental properties: size, shape, texture, mass. Those properties are "really out there" and our sense organs pick up on them the best we can. Okay, cool. But notice color is not on that list. Green is nothing more than the way light reacts with our retina/brain. Color is not "out there," light is. The tree has the potential to be perceived as green and brown when light bounces off it and hits our eyeballs, that's all. This isn't controversial either. Qualities like color, heat, loud, bitter, the smell of a fart--they are all quasi-real, in limbo, secondary, dependent. I hope you feel the world crumbling. Color seems pretty fucking real to me thank you very much!

Enter the Idealists

Some people just scrap the whole idea of an external world altogether. We don't need it. When I'm dreaming, I see green trees, I move through space, I eat cake, I cry (hell, I even have sex and ejaculate sometimes). All in the mind, mental, not caused by physical objects. There is no external tree causing my perception of a tree in the dream. So why can't reality be the same way? Well, it can. The Matrix, although improbable, is possible. We could all be "plugged in" right now. Descartes imagined a powerful Evil Demon that might be tricking us, pulling this fake reality over our eyes just for the hell of it. George Berkeley simply replaced the external world with God. God doesn't need physical matter, a useless middle man, when He can just implant sense experiences directly to our mind. We are living in God's dream, God's mind; God holds up reality. As a believer, this is a very tempting position to take. There is a simplicity to it, sort of. Kant replaced the external world not with God, but with an unknowable world, a foundation, a world that causes our perceptions but one we can know nothing about--except that it must exist.

So does a tree make a sound if nobody is there to hear it? No. Or, sure, God hears it. Or, the question itself makes no sense. That's really the point here. What do we mean by a tree, after all? Green, brown, particular shape, particular feel, particular smells, etc. A tree is nothing but a group of sense experiences or possible sense experiences, therefore to talk about an unperceived tree makes no sense at all. To be is to be perceived in some way. Yes a tree has size, shape, texture, and mass. All those qualities are real. But notice those qualities, just like color, are qualities we perceive the tree to have. They are real because we perceive them, simple as that. Yes we can say the tree is made of atoms, but that just means if we look in a microscope we see it's made of smaller stuff, and smaller stuff, etc. We can speculate about what's really "out there," but all we really have is our perceptions, all we have access to is the end product (in my diagram above, it's the thought bubble). We can only look at the world through eyes, smell the world through noses, and feel the world through touchers. We cannot float above our body and brain to see what the world really looks like when nobody is looking at it. Human reality is human reality. There is something out there, but who knows what that is? Perhaps it's really a pink, squishy ball that's causing my perception of a green, hard Sugar Maple. As long as we all perceive the tree, nobody cares.


5 Things Wrong with our Legal System

Laws Not Accessible to Citizens
Have you ever tried to actually read a law? Have you ever tried to find one? Even in a digital age, if a citizen is lucky enough to find a law on a given topic (say, illegal evictions), the law is written in such hyper-technical language that is virtually inaccessible to normal people. It might as well be written in Greek. The Michigan law on illegal evictions, for example, is called the "Forcible Entry and Detainer Act" and contains the beautiful words "unlawful interference of possessory interest" and "injunctive relief" and "put out of any lands." What? And that's not even a bad example.

Thus a fundamental parodox: the law is extremely important to our daily lives, yet we are divorced from it. This flies in the face of an informed democratic society. One solution is that lawmakers start writing laws in plain English, simple as that (they cringe at the notion). The ridiculous technical language employed by lawyers and judges, although fun as a game to play, has got to go. This isn't rocket science. Ordinary language would suffice. Don't call it "Summary Proceedings"; call it Eviction, a word we all know. That would be a huge leap closer to a Direct Democracy, where the people directly vote on our laws (as opposed to a Representative Republic where we hire corporate-backed politicians to write and vote on our laws).

Courts Not Accessible to Citizens
This directly follows from 1. and is even more damaging. If you cannot understand the law, and if the Court Rules make no sense either (these are the specific rules you have to follow when filing a case, filing motions, conducting yourself in court, etc)--then it's almost impossible to represent yourself in court. Yet this is a fundamental right we are supposed to have. Court employees hate when people are set on representing themselves because (a) they know how hard it will be for everyone involved and (b) the citizen will (rightly) ask them how to do things (file paperwork), to which they will reply "sorry I cannot give you legal advice" and (c) that's bullshit. That's a problem with the court system, not with the citizen of normal intelligence. What about Small Claims court? Yes, that's nice, Small Claims is accessible to people, but the whole system should be like that. Also, you can only use Small Claims when you want money from someone else, there is a cap on how much you can ask for, and if you sue a business in Small Claims they have a right to "bump it up" to district court and then you are screwed.

Poor People Get Screwed
This follows from 1. and 2. If you cannot use the court system, then you have to hire an attorney. If you cannot hire an attorney, then you are screwed. This happens in both civil court, where poor people could lose all their money, or in criminal court, where poor people could go to prison for having bad representation. Not only are poor people more likely to not understand the law, they are more likely to get screwed when they break it.

Black Men Really Get Screwed
Go read the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Even if you don't agree with her conclusion--that our criminal justice system is a form of racism comparing to the Jim Crow south--the statistics are shocking. 1 in 6 black men have been incarcerated as of 2001. If this trend continues 1 in 3 black men born today will go to prison in their lifetime. A lot of this has to do with the drug war and how it has been waged for decades. Studies show that white people do drugs just as much as black people. Yet how many police officers have you seen in the suburbs, systematically stopping and frisking soccer moms for pot? Yeah, none.

Judges Shocking Power
When the law is horribly confusing and badly written, this gives judges not only a tough job but the unrestrained power to "interpret" the law pretty much in any way they want (to review, the law comes from two main sources: politicians and judges). This can be good and bad. We have all heard of the burglar who fell on a knife and sued the owner of the house. That shit happens. It's a problem. The law has become a huge monster. Given any particular case, you could find case law to support whatever position you want (in law school I believe this is a typical exercise). It would be funny if it didn't affect real peoples' lives. If the law was in plain English and understandable, it would rarely happen. In a way lawyers and judges are like the Pharasees of Jesus time--they hold the keys to the kingdom at the expense of the poor.Don't you find it completely absurd that we talk about Supreme Court Justices the same way we talk about politicians?

Having said all this, I remain proud our our legal system for the most part. In all it's complexity, checks and balances, and evolution there is a beauty to it. There is no conspiracy here, and many lawyers and judges want to do good for people. But for the reasons above, I have a love-hate relationhship with it and think there are obvious reforms to make.