December 11, 2015

"Ah ha!" moments, from Archimedes to O.J. Simpson

John HahnRebel Blogger

I was once challenged by a woman of strong opinion, a lawyer, intelligent but not technically savvy, at a dinner party after she found that I am a trained physicist.

She demanded that I prove that electrons exists. “After all, did you ever see one?” she half-joked.

“‘Zhoom!! There goes one now!’” she exclaimed in mock dramatization, an eyebrow arched, expressing the whole “Ah ha! Gotcha now!” look.

I was so startled by this ambush that I paused and gulped but then dutifully began explaining the historical background of the electron, starting with J. J. Thomson.

I might have spared myself the trouble because I had already been punked. The debate was lost before I realized that there was one.

And it was a debate lost not following a balanced discussion of legitimate evidence for electrons but lost in the awkward pause following the arched eyebrow and the “Ah ha! Gotcha now!” expression, subsequently ratified by the giggles of the amused party guests.

Thus I was the unwitting participant in a demonstration of how the laws of rhetoric trump the laws of scientific discussion.

Now in fact my antagonist and everyone at the dinner party understand enough about electricity to use it in their everyday lives, as they fire up their computers to either formally report client depositions or other business-related matters, to turn on the lights in their homes when night comes on and to turn on their widescreen, surround sound televisions to watch their favorite legal shows.

She knows enough that with electricity and the electrons in motion which comprise it, her electronic tools and toys will work and without it, they won’t. She is like so many others at large in society, not having a clue how their television works but knowing full well who is in danger of elimination this week on American Idol.

Social debate has always had a fair amount of “Ah ha! Gotcha!” about it and for the most part it is of fleeting importance. But it remains an interesting phenomenon in its own right, so frequently are we confronted by it. It was Arthur Koestler who in his work The Act of Creation offered a theory of human creative emotion that accounted for the feeling of artistic transcendence (“Ahhh!”), the feeling of amusement (“Ha Ha!”) and the exultation of scientific discovery (“Ah ha!”).

As the phonics suggest, Koestler thought there was a connection realized in the physiology required in forming these sounds and the emotional states themselves and spent some effort bringing these under scrutiny.

To summarize his thoughts here, “Ahhh” expresses the transcendent, that which literally taking our breath away, as when we see a beautiful sunset or hear an exquisite musical performance. We breathe deeply, taking in the experience as if to make it more fully part of ourselves.

The amusement represented by “Ha ha” may be thought of as almost the opposite of the transcendent “Ahhh.” Situations of humor are frequently based upon two equally feasible interpretations of a situation but in such a way as to cause our cognition to sputter and stall in its struggle for a resolution.

Koestler further notes that humor is thus frequently cruel. For instance, if we observe someone acting dignified resolutely oblivious to every factor taking that dignity away (Think Clark Griswold talking wisely to his son while his own glasses slowly fall off his face as the tape holding them together steadily unravels), we see the conflict between the imagined and actual situation and in a paroxysm of logical conflict, seeing the truth of both circumstances at once and consequently not being able to pigeonhole into one or another, we expel air from our lungs.

The “Ha ha” permits a physical release of the pent up energy brought about by the logical conflict.

“Ah ha!” expresses the emotion attendant to discovery or revelation. It a hybridized response when one makes a discovery of perceived value, splicing together the feelings of transcendence of beauty and the dissonance of an old paradigm jostled by new evidence.

Koestler holds this to exemplify the emotional rewards of scientific enquiry, but it is just as reasonable to suppose that this emotion is also experienced by anyone circling in a crowded parking lot who has found an open space right where they thought there might be one.

Here one has in microcosm the small transcendence of finding a parking place (“Ah!”) with the conflicting, dissonant awareness that on face evidence there was not likely to be a parking place at all (“Ha!”).

This is the curious and unstable common ground shared by those scientifically exploring natural law to expand our understanding of it and those seeking to expertly and within the rules constrain human law in order to arrive at a desirable outcome on behalf of their clients.

There is the “Ah ha!” of having expanded understanding and the “Ah ha!” of having cast reasonable doubt upon understanding. If it does not fit, you must acquit. “Ah Ha!”

In hindsight, we can see the difference between Archimedes standing up excitedly from his bath having just appreciated the principle of buoyancy and Johnny Cochrane taking advantage of a shrunken glove to see his client (temporarily) off to freedom.

In one, we see the thrill of discovery ascend to transcendent awe at yet another demonstration of Nature’s order. In the other we see the descent from the discovery that reasonable doubt may be cast upon evidence to the uneasy realization that justice may not have been done in the process.

Science and the criminal code are two different things, but “Ah Ha!” at its foundation expresses the same surprised human delight in discovery and wherever it is used we are, as human beings, are inclined to accept its implicit triumph.

Thus my antagonist bootstrapped herself to victory by claiming victory. And human beings, frail things that they are, are all too prone to cutting to the chase and listening for the best “Ah Ha!” out there, in making up their minds on issues, most particularly with respect to issues in the public sphere.

The emotion of discovery is the same no matter whether it is brought to life through inspiration, through careful, diligent toil, or through a flippant verbal display of confirmation bias.

Going back to that dinner party, I ought not have paused to offer an explanation but simply walked over to the switch, turned the lights on and off a couple of times, and returned to rediscover my drink.

Ah Ha!




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commented 2015-12-14 08:32:32 -0500
The philosopher Bernard Lonergan wrote his master opus on that subject entitled “Insight”… is not light reading.
commented 2015-12-13 18:02:09 -0500
And riding on the electron she saw was an honest lawyer!
Damn, I think I disproved the existence of electrons.
commented 2015-12-12 22:56:43 -0500
“Ah ha!”