Everything is a witness statement

Let me share some memories with you.

I remember lying in my crib as a baby, and two heads appearing above me. They were radiating exuberance. A hand reached for the mechanical toy above my head. I have a feeling it was my mother and I have the feeling she kept tugging at that cord. I know her, I’m sure she loved that toy more than I did. I remember that it made an awful ruckus. The tinny sound of a music box isn’t kind on a newborns ears. I don’t remember liking or disliking as a baby. It was just loud. It’s the adult me who cringes. I remember being picked up from my crib. Whoever it is doesn’t support my head enough, it falls backward. I tense up and feel something that I would call ‘panic’ today. I remember being laid down on the blue, plastic, sticky (the plastic sticks to my back and once the diaper is removed, to my ass) pillow that has raised edges. I remember getting a diaper change, my butt being lifted and a new diaper put underneath me. I remember laughing at the talc powder can. I remember wanting to have it, to touch it. The talc powder touches my tiny baby butt. I love that stuff, it makes a cloud and feels funny to my skin.

I remember a photograph being taken of me. We’re on holiday. I remember being told by the photographer to stand over there. The gravel crunches under my shoes as I walk to the spot. My parents, my mother pushing a pram, standing behind the photographer, were looking at me. I don’t like it. Something feels wrong. It’s August 4th 1987. I’m three months shy of turning 3.

I have more early childhood memories.

Schrödinger’s early childhood memories

So here’s the question. Do you believe me?

It doesn’t matter to me whether you do or do not. I’ve spoken to other people who remember being a baby or very young child. However, contemporary science says “nope”. You can’t have baby memories. Before age three, no way. It’s fictional. You made it all up.

Hold on. Science can’t prove that statement (“it’s fictional”) any more than it can prove that a memory is true. Let me explain.

Suppose you wanted me to offer you proof that A. the events I mentioned above are true happenings and B. that I have an original memory of those moments. As you’ll soon see, childhood memories pose a unique problem. Take my memory of being photographed, for example. My parents kept that black and white photograph. It was in their bedroom for decades. In primary school, I told my mother not to throw that photograph away, I wanted to have it when I grew up. I instinctively knew it was important. I can see in my own eyes what I remember I felt: discomfort, unease. It’s a testament to my own perception of the world, I really did feel that way. My mother kept it and I got it for my 25th birthday. It’s a black and white photograph. I don’t remember the color of my shoes or the color of my coat. But I remembered the gravel underneath my feet and there it is. Now, with this photograph I can prove that it really happened. Point A. Taken care of. As for B., I am giving you, in my witness statement, not only the claim that it happened but that I have an original memory of that event. However, the photo cannot serve as proof of the latter. No evidence of an event happening can ever serve as proof that a memory of the event is original.

At best, a memory can be shown to be impossible, like the main character in the book “I never promised you a rose garden” who remembered an event that couldn’t have happened and that turned out to be a young child’s fantasy, stored as a memory. Children can indeed mix up fantasy with reality. Like the first time you ask your mom about dreams. As a young kid there was a period where you didn’t understand why people don’t remember being in your dream the night before. Time has a curious quality too, when you’re really young. You need to come to grips with today and tomorrow. Obviously, the question of early childhood memories is a curious one.

However, perhaps it’s contrasted with adult memory in a way that doesn’t hold up. The memories of childhood have no different quality than those of adulthood. There is no proof of that anywhere. So this whole topic could well extend to adult memory. How do you know that your memories of five years ago are accurate? You can’t. Most people have difficulty recounting what they had for dinner four weeks ago. It’s known that witness statements can be very unreliable: We don’t have control over what we remember. It’s not until after the fact that we realize that the event was or was not important. By then, your brain has already decided what to store and what to discard. Regardless of whether you’re interested in it later. Asking anyone to recall a specific event, will give mixed results, because each persons’ brain has to decide in the moment if something is worth storing in detail.

Interestingly, if you offer evidence of an early childhood event (or any event in adulthood, for that matter) happening, then the presence of the evidence itself offers an alternative explanation for your memory of it: the memory could be fabricated from the evidence. An outsider can’t determine if the memory is original, and sometimes you can’t either. In short, the best that can be done is either to prove that an event happened, with photographs or video or someone else affirming it, which directly makes it impossible to make any further claims on whether the memory is original; or, no proof of the event is present at all but the memory contains happenings that are physically impossible. If, however, there is no evidence and yet the memory is plausible, that’s where it ends. You can’t ever prove, without a doubt, that both A and B hold for your memory.

Below is a table. The first three columns set up a scenario. For example, someone has a memory, but the memory is not consistent and there is no evidence of the event. In that case, since the memory is not consistent, there’s a good chance that, in its entirety, it is false.

The memory isIs the event possible?
i.e. no levitation 😉
Is there “evidence”?
e.g. photographs
What can we prove?
an original, true memorypossible no evidenceWe can’t prove or disprove that the event happened. We also can’t decide whether the memory is original or fabricated.
an original, true memorypossible evidence We can prove that the event happened, but we can’t decide whether the memory is original or fabricated.
a fabricated memoryimpossible no evidence We can show that the memory as a whole is incorrect (fabricated), because it contains things that are physically impossible. We can’t prove or disprove whether any part of the memory is based on some true event. But the memory as a whole is known to be false. Pigs don’t fly.
a fabricated memorypossible no evidence We can’t prove or disprove that the event happened. We also can’t decide whether the memory is original or fabricated.
a fabricated memorypossible evidence We can prove that the event happened, but we can’t decide whether the memory is original or fabricated.
A logician will see that if this were a truth table it should have 8 rows. However, three of the cases are in direct contradiction, for example an original memory of an impossible event is a case that cannot occur.

Basically, besides disproving the memory altogether, if a memory is plausible we can never decide if it’s original or fabricated. The reason research into early childhood memories will never be able to show whether or not a certain percentage of people does have accurate, original memories from before age 3 is that it’s rather unethical to separate a kid from his mom and scare the bejeezus out of him.

Besides the ethical problems, and the practical (which parent doesn’t ask their kid how their day was and what they did?), the problem this question poses is that of the witness statement. There is only one possible witness to the kid’s memories, and that’s the kid itself. Nobody else is in his head. So nobody can verify the presence, absence or quality of a memory directly. There is no second witness in your own brain. Nobody else can open the box to take a look at the cat.

Truth cannot be established without witnesses

Childhood memories are a special case of a more general problem. How do we establish that something is true?

round black and green magnifying glass

In scientific research, we describe in minute detail how to go from situation 1 to situation 2. Then, we repeat. We establish situation 1 over and over and we execute our own recipe to verify that we’re consistently reaching scenario 2. Then, we show our recipe to others. They check it. If research gets approved, it is because other people vouched for it. Other people inspected it and they bear witness to the results. The idea behind peer reviewed research is that other people will check to see if they can find weaknesses in your research. If one person comes along who repeats the experiment and obtains contradictory results, the proof weakens significantly. Yet, what happens when there is no counter-evidence? It doesn’t mean there is no counter-evidence anywhere in the universe. It just means that the current witnesses haven’t found any yet.

In mathematics, a proof is scrutinized and if enough people vouch that they can’t find fault with it, it is considered true. It is the same in every field. Let that sink in. Even in the hard sciences, a proof is only true because people vouch for it. They say “I haven’t found an error and I’m considered pretty damn smart – see my credentials which are also witness statements of my competence. If I can’t find fault, then your proof is probably good”.

If, tomorrow, someone took a crowbar to mathematics and proved that some fundamental assumption is false, the whole science would collapse. It takes just one witness. In the meantime, we believe that we’re on the right track.

Being human is having to choose what to believe

A fundamental truth to being human, is that all the things you, personally, consider facts, are actually a matter of agreement between the people (you yourself included) whose observations you think count. That is not to say that your selection of people you trust makes any sense or that you’re right. It’s just the way we we work, we listen to people and decide what to incorporate in our world view. Not everything that people observe gives you truth, though. Black swans is a good example of how true observations – “all swans (that we see) are white” – still can lead to a completely wrong conclusion. However, it’s the best we have. Not only that: it’s all we have. As long as neither you nor anybody you know has seen a black swan, all swans are white in your universe. The best you have is your five senses and whatever you hear other people say.

Those bits of the universe that you can’t see directly, only exist because other people tell you about it. The universe needs observers to exist. No statements can be made without witnesses, because only witnesses can make statements.

It’s the same with a lawsuit. If you have video image of a crime, this is not proof unless and until a human being has watched it. If nobody watches the video, ever, then it is not proof of anything. It might as well not exist at all. Suppose that everyone who watches that video sees the crime, clear as daylight, but testifies that nothing was seen on the video? Suppose the entire planet, you included, insists that the video contains no images of any crime, even though it’s factually there. The entire human race looks at the video and doesn’t see it. Is the video proof then? No. It’s not. A laptop showing a video of a crime, when nobody is watching it, might as well make no sound at all.

We have agreed in law that proof is any object, sensory data or witness statement that can be thoroughly inspected by many different people and that we deem so convincing that we just know it would be judged the same by any human being who looks at it. That’s the idea at least. It’s not practical, though. This is something we’d rather not think about. We like to think that proof is anything that cannot be denied, ever. This is a convenient lie to hide from ourselves the fact that no piece of evidence is the same as the fact it is supposed to prove. An observation that a table is painted red, is not the same as the being red of the table itself. The bruises sustained in a fight are not the fight itself. You have to rely on secondary things. We know that just one person stating that another person did something can’t be enough to come to a conviction. That’s just one person’s word against another. We know that this is untenable. So what do we want? Hard evidence. Often, the evidence, even when considered hard evidence, doesn’t manage to eliminate reasonable doubt. This quote from the movie 12 angry men illustrates the whole point I’m making here. Humans have to be a witness to any evidence and must unanimously come to the same conclusions.

“If there is a reasonable doubt in your minds as to the guilt of the accused . . . then you must declare him not guilty. If, however, there is no reasonable doubt, then he must be found guilty. Whichever way you decide, the verdict must be unanimous. I urge you to deliberate honestly and thoughtfully.”

12 angry men – Act 1

We’d rather not be told that even the task of establishing whether something is hard evidence depends on people who witness the evidence and give a verdict. For example, you can offer an e-mail as proof. But what is an e-mail? It’s a digital file of ones and zeroes. It’s pretty straightforward to fake. You’d have to get in a second witness, the company hosting the e-mail servers, to testify that the e-mail offered as proof was indeed sent by their servers. How do they prove that? With logfiles.. which are digital files that…. Therefore, we want independent witnesses, naturally. But still, it’s all dependent on humans giving reliable testimony.

Sadly, there are people who want to counter this problem by giving an accusation the status of proof. Some may even abuse the reasoning I’m presenting here to support their claim. So let me counter that in advance: I’m not saying that there is no such thing as evidence of a crime. I’m saying that a human witnessing it is a prerequisite for something to serve as evidence. Someone has to watch that awful security camera footage and then declare that the video shows an act of violence. If a witness’ story is consistent, holds up when questioned and is supported by other evidence, that is still not actual proof of the event happening. It’s only proof because we look at it with our eyes and declare it to be proof. Like the allegory of the cave, we can’t see the fire or the objects, we see only the shadows. We testify that we see the shadows. That’s the best we have.

Truth is a quality that is established by observation. However, observation is not a guarantee of truth. How many research papers are approved that contradict each other? The research is deemed sound but the results vary. Then, perhaps years later, you get the meta analysis, with new observers who decide to look at all research again and combine it. Truth is a huge topic in this day and age. What is truth? Truth is two things. On the one hand, it hinges on the idea that at any moment in time, the universe is configured in a single certain way and not in any other way. Truth, then, is any correct statement made about the universe at a particular point in time. But there’s a second part. The concept of truth only exists because humans thought it up. So it’s up to humans to establish when something is true and when it is not. Truth is, therefore, both the treasure and the quest for it. Truth is, in practice, an ability. It is the ability to collect all sorts of statements about the universe and then to build a picture of the universe that holds up even if new information comes in. If you are able to handle truth, you are able to vacillate between opinions when necessary. A phrase like “Strong opinions, weakly held” comes to mind. Which means you need to Google for the opposite opinion to prove yourself wrong. Or make a bet to lose some of that bias, your call.

Like the black swan’s existence, your current knowledge is based only on what you yourself have seen so far. Since you can’t see everything that happens everywhere, we have a built in option that evolution gave rise to: we take our own direct observations (sight, smell, sound, touch, taste) plus: the witness statements of other people. So besides being able to hear a tree fall in the forest, we can listen to someone else who tells us that they heard a tree fall in the forest. It expands our personal knowledge exponentially when we don’t have to go somewhere ourselves to take a look. However, with this mechanism, comes a downside. We now realize that nobody has seen the entire universe. Each of us has only seen a tiny bit, and has drawn conclusions about the whole based on the tiny bit we’ve seen. What we also know, is that people might have drawn conclusions based on limited data that are incorrect. Yikes. There is another step, one we are least likely to take, but that is the most important one: we ourselves could be one of those people who got it wrong..

Either way, figuring out the universe becomes a big question mark. If you listen to someone else talk about how the world works, how do you know they are speaking truth? I’m not saying they’re not telling the truth. They have probably truly, genuinely drawn conclusions about the universe based on their observations and the people they have spoken to (or listened to). There is nothing deceitful about their description of the universe, it’s just how they have built up a mental map of life, the universe and everything. However, how do you know if their theory is more or less powerful than yours? How do you decide whether to incorporate their witness statement into your map of the world, or whether you have a piece of data that they are missing? Or, heavens forbid, that both of you are wrong in subtle or not so subtle ways?

Trust and verification

The person whose statement you are taking for truth, did they witness, with their own senses that which they are telling you? How can you know this for sure? You can’t. It’s a matter of trust. They assert, promise you that they saw it with their own eyes. They could instead be one of many in a chain of people who have told each-other a story, via Chinese whispers. Or they could have made it up. If you start digging, how many hops do you have to make before you find the person who saw something with their own eyes? Or before you can see it with your own eyes?

How many mouse clicks to find the original, full interview instead of a, perhaps equally long, critique video? The derived work can never replace the original. It can only lead back to it. Just the phrase “strong opinions, weakly held” took me one Google search and four mouse clicks before I found the purported originator of the quote. I have found three or four other blog posts that affirm that Paul Saffo is the originator, so I’m guessing that’s probably right. It might not be, but for this purpose it’s good enough for me. I decided to trust the sources I found.

red round fruits on green tree

Why do you trust some people and not others? In practice, we never actually verify statements made by other human beings. This is what actually makes it so easy to spread false information. It works both ways. We copy false information and fail to copy correct information. Another word for this is: bias. Even if we trust someone, if they come with a radically different opinion than ours, we might reflexively think about severing the relationship rather than reconsidering your own set of ideas and values. We close the video, leave the page, change the topic. Most of the time, we don’t dig through Wikipedia, Google and fifteen different science journals to inspect the material that both supports and opposes a claim and then carefully weigh our opinion. That would defeat the purpose of the mechanism I just described. The whole point of humans figuring out speech was so that you can know stuff without having to experience it yourself. Don’t eat that berry. There, that just saved you a painful trial. It saves a lot of information processing if you can just take the advice from someone else. That other guy survived so far, so their advice is probably good.

It’s that mechanism that is giving us trouble now. Anyone can say anything and there is just too damn much information (not all of it useful, either) and our brains short circuit under that load. So, what do we do? No way we’re going to dig through every single piece of information that exists. On the other hand, we can’t take everything anyone says for granted either. Some ideas are better than others. How can we determine this, if everything is a witness statement anyway?

First of all, whose opinion do you trust? I’m not talking about “which friend will have your back in a crisis”. I’m talking about identifying people who seem to genuinely think about shit. Who do you know who seriously gives their opinions thought? Treasure that person. Seriously. You know that when they give you advice, it’s well thought through. I admit I didn’t follow very good advice from one of my best friends last year, D., who always thinks things through before he acts. I will immediately say that he was totally right, I should have done more to prevent getting overworked. He warned me, twice and I knew it. Thoughtful friends are important. I have a good acquaintance who has an amazing sense of intuition. If she says something, I pay closer attention these days.

Besides direct friends, we can consider a journalist, blogger, YouTuber or an institution to be trustworthy. Trust is an emotion that often implies some connection. If we trust someone, we will take their world view into account. There are people online who don’t know me, but I know them from their work and having watched videos of theirs where they present themselves in a manner that appeals to me. I have become attached to these persons and they have provided me with valuable insight that in part matched what I already had in my mental map. This further built their trustworthiness for me, obviously. Then, they added information that was new to me. Trusting their judgement, I incorporated some of their viewpoints. Not all of it. Don’t copy someone else’s opinion wholesale. One thing to consider is: What is your reason for trusting them? Do they have credentials or personal experience that gives you reason to consider them as more trustworthy than some random person from the streets? Did you look at their work considering that they could be right and that they could be wrong at the same time? Did you dissect their work and try to piece it back together to see if their chain of thoughts makes sense? More importantly, can you dissect your own current opinion and figure out where their ideas fit in? Your idea of the universe has to account for everything you see. This is not my opinion, you can see that everyone works according to this principle: if someone has an opinion different than yours, you have to be able to incorporate the existence of their opinion in your world view. I promise you that whenever you are unable to do so (which is all the time) your brain will want to go to the easiest explanation it can find: the other person is dumb or evil. There, that fits their opinion neatly in your own universe. Problem solved. Except when the opinion keeps coming back and you start to foam at the mouth. The fact that we get upset, proves how important it is to our brain that the map you’ve built up accounts for everything. Often that means you account for it by stating that others are wrong. It’s better to be kind than right. Except first, someone’s got to be right, right? I think a good heuristic is: When you’re angry, you’re probably wrong on something. If your world view is accurate, you won’t have to call someone dumb or evil, or misguided.

Now, the way to get back to sanity, when it comes to the topic of trust, is this: Did you give some serious thought to whose opinion you trust (or mistrust) and why? You can trust anyone you want, of course. Truly. It’s your prerogative. It’s your mind. But.. do you give it thought? Why do you trust a person’s opinion on a certain topic? Why do you trust their ideas? Exactly why do you allow their ideas to take up space in your brain? Do you know them? Do they have some experience or background in the field? Is their reasoning sound? Are they an anonymous stranger on the internet, or are they sharing their ideas and who they are under their true name? I think that’s a good first step.

The second part is verification. No, you’re not going to read all of the internet. No way. But you can verify information. That doesn’t mean that you read every single paper that people slap you around the head with on Twitter or Facebook. Instead, do you give information some serious thought? Finding the truth is hard, man. That’s one of the afflictions that comes with being human. Precisely because truth cannot be established directly, but must be established indirectly via witness statements, we need to be careful. I think that we shouldn’t go beyond two levels: The things we see for ourselves and the things that people tell us that they experienced themselves. I try not to trust “he said she said” information blindly. I try not to take seriously any video that is shorter than 30 minutes. I try not to trust quotes shorter than three paragraphs. I fail at this, obviously. But I try. Once you get further removed from the original source of information, we need to dig deeper to get to the original source. Today, Joep and I spent twenty minutes searching for a piece of research that was quoted in a YouTube video for a post he was writing. In the video, the host mentioned there’s some research saying the lock downs cost ten times more life years than it saved. Where? Show me. Admittedly, I often only read the abstract and conclusion, but it’s a way for me to know if this makes sense in the bigger scheme of things. Show, don’t tell.

Lastly, the way to show that your own idea holds up, is by searching for evidence against your idea. You search for witness statements that contradict your observations or counterarguments to your train of thought. If you can’t find any or if your theory can handle them, you’ve got a sound idea. For now.