David Weinberger
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Seeing past your glasses

01 October 2015

A couple of years ago, one of my nephews enthusiastically told us about a research paper he’d just read that provided evidence that people who speak a language with an accent simply cannot hear differences that seem so obvious to native speakers. For example, a Russian who, when speaking English, pronounces “W” as a “V” hears no difference between those two sounds no matter how many times and how slowly we enunciate them.

It’s an interesting idea, and I responded by recalling the time my wife and I were in Freiburg learning German for a summer. The teacher kept correcting our attempts to pronounce “L.” Apparently we were supposed to be forming the sound with our tongues closer to the front of our mouth. But no matter how many times he said, “No, it’s L not L,” we just couldn’t hear the difference. And when we made a little progress by making sure our tongues were positioned forward, we only knew that because he told us so.

It was a slightly amusing story. But then I continued, “Still, that’s a lot different than an accent that can’t tell the difference between a V and a W, right?”

My nephew, who is smarter than me, looked at me aghast. “You’re kidding, aren’t you?”

I probably lied, laughed and said yes. But I wasn’t. I was missing the point entirely. Even when we know that we all live in bubbles, our bubble stubbornly looks like the right one. 

That’s not because we’re vain or particularly stupid. Rather, it’s the way bubbles work. They give us a coherent world. What doesn’t cohere we write off. In fact, we have a rich array of ways of writing things off. For example, if you, like me, believe that every physical event has a physical cause, when we see something and can’t imagine its cause, we just assume that the cause exists. Even if the event is quite mysterious, we shake our heads in wonder, ask if we’ll ever know and we go on believing that it will be explained someday, or at least could be explained. There is zero point in bringing weird coincidences to us or happenings that seem to be impossible to explain. Nope, our causality bubble keeps us from seeing anything uncaused.

Likewise, my bubble happens to have no room in it for divine intervention. The person next to me sees each day as a new miracle, sees the work of God in a budding flower and sees a divine hand shaping events at every scale. Not in my bubble. Even if I were presented with a dramatic event for which I have no explanation—a sudden cure, an inexplicable light in the sky—I will refuse to let into my bubble even the possibility that it’s a divine manifestation. Nope, there’s got to be a physical explanation somewhere. I know that because my bubble says so.

Seems right to us

That’s not a bug; it’s a feature. A bubble is really just a coherent set of beliefs. Beliefs need coherence or they’re not beliefs. They literally make no sense. I could not believe that flowers are beautiful because their DNA has evolved to attract insects unless I also believed in DNA, natural selection, insect-based pollination and the results obtained through scientific research and equipment. I could not see a flower as a divine manifestation without equally sweeping—and detailed—beliefs about God’s relation to the world, the intentionality of nature, the presence of the sacred in the mundane or some other coherent set of ideas. No belief lives alone.

And precisely the same is true of the causality bubble I live in. The difference is that the causality bubble is the true one …

… And I’ve just missed the point again. Of course our bubble seems right to us. Our bubble is that which enables ideas to be understood and evaluated as right or wrong in the first place.

If that’s the case, where did I go wrong with my nephew’s idea? My story about learning German acknowledged that what we literally can hear depends upon our bubble: I can’t hear a difference between two L’s that my German teacher can. Yet I insisted that the same must not be true of cultures that don’t hear the difference between V and W. What seemed like an obvious difference to me must be obvious to those other cultures. Right there you’ve got the fundamental Fallacy of the Bubble.

And it’s a tough one to overcome. There will be cases where my bubble simply does not enable me to see—or hear—a difference. The first thing I can do is acknowledge it intellectually: OK, V and W really do sound the same to that other culture. The second thing I can do is apply that to myself: My bubble is not letting me see differences and distinctions that are visible and possibly even important in other bubbles.

From there we can try to devise policies and procedures based on the irreconcilability of bubbles. But the one thing we cannot do is live outside a bubble. Especially since my causality bubble happens to be right.

Isn’t it?