02 November 2012

What Passes for Omniscience

It really bothers me when someone says, "You know what happens when you assume: It makes an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me.'" And then looks immensely pleased with himself as though it were a Very Great Thing Indeed to be able to spell a six-letter word and turn it into a juvenile pun.

The very existence of this irritating little joke has made people assume its truth, to the extent that you don't even need to deliver the punchline anymore. You can just say, "Well, you know what happens when you assume," and everyone around the table will nod sagely at your impressive display of folk wisdom. Heck, you might even get some forced snickers.

I had a boss who once did this to me in a meeting room full of people. What I wanted to respond was, "I was going to say it makes an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me,' but you're there already, so I'm not sure." Happily for my gainful employment, I did not say this to his face. But I was thinking it.

A better response might be, "It allows us to begin making sense of a very chaotic world." The ability to assume is vital to hypothesis formation, without which scientific inquiry could not occur. It is not overstating the case to say that if we could not assume, we would not be able to learn.

While I was running last week, this idea struck me: assumption is one of the tools that allows us, as time-, space-, and learning-bound creatures, to behave like the eternal, omnipresent, omniscient God in whose image we are made.

As I see it, our experience of the world goes something like this:
  1. Our senses detect things in the world around us.
  2. We use prior experiences as a frame of reference for the new sensory input.
  3. We categorize the new input: We either place it within a previously created category or define a new category in contrast to a previously created category.
  4. We build and re-build these categories recursively. The more input we receive, the more specialized the categories can become.
  5. The categories will never become more specialized than we need them to be. They are based on useful distinctions, and if a distinction is not useful, it should not be retained within our category definitions.
As we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch the world us, we impose useful mental frameworks on it (thus emulating omniscience, or dominance over knowledge). And as we organize our ideas about it, we gain the ability to manipulate it in advantageous ways (thus emulating omnipotence, or dominance over matter). And as we observe and manipulate, we tend to organize our observations and actions into a chronological, sequential order (thus emulating eternity, or dominance over time).

So, assuming, you see, is much more than just an excuse to make a stupid joke. It's one of the linchpins of human knowledge, and perhaps even a key part of what it means to be made in God's image.

One last thing: I love it when people say, "Well, you know what assuming does." My perennial response? "Poor Ming! And poor U!"

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