Beyond Between Good and Evil

  • “Adults have to deal with moral grey areas”
  • “I’m not liberal or conservative, I guess I’m somewhere in the middle”
  • “It may be helpful to think of data science and business intelligence as being on two ends of the same spectrum” (source)
  • “On a sliding scale from 1 to 10, how happy are you with life?”
  • “[S]cientific bias…is a model for separating plausible hypotheses from their opposite.” (source)
  • Please rate your attitude toward the following statements from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”.
  • How did you like that book, movie, play, album? Please answer anywhere between ★ and ★★★★★.
  • “The truth lies somewhere in between”

People talk about “grey areas” as if [0,1] is so much more sophisticated than {0,1}. I find such rhetoric limiting. After all, the convex combinations of black and white are totally ordered, completely linear, and only one-dimensional! A painting in B&W couldn’t display much variation. (Not that it couldn’t be interesting.) We deal everyday with things more complicated than “a grey area” because the world is 3-D and colour is Lab (3-D nonlinear). Add in texture and smell and you’ve increased the psychological dimensionality manyfold.

The metaphor is insufficiently rich. Adult situations don’t fall on a straight line. Political viewpoints don’t sit neatly next to each other in 1-D. Moral ambiguity is certainly more colourful and convoluted than the path from #000000 to #FFFFFF.

Me, I’m more interested in 2.7-dimensional hornspheres, quartz crystal spires, hot-air balloons with a row of golden rings piercing the spine, and quasi-polar negatively bent inside-out torii-cum-logcabins. Or even just something as “pedestrian” as a mountaintop pine forest, which is already much more intricate than, cough cough, the unit interval [0,1].

So—back to my original point—I think moral ambiguity resembles a cell complex more than a line segment. Real situations—the layered tragedies, ironies, comedies, and lengthy mediocrities that desirous, egocentric humans instinctively generate—have a much more interesting shape than “the span between 0 and 1.”

I guess I shouldn’t be so critical. The people using the grey-area metaphor probably don’t avail themselves of the whimsical thought-gardens in which more exciting shapes live. Sorry there, I was just feeling constricted.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these drawings by Robert Ghrist from his (free) notes on homotopy.

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About isomorphismes

Argonaut: someone engaged in a dangerous but potentially rewarding adventure.
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