Assume Nothing?

We make assumptions. Some of these assumptions are so deeply embedded in our minds that we are unaware of them, but our world view is profoundly shaped by them. These assumptions define our reality and much of our identity. Fundamental fact: we are made of assumptions. Fundamental, unrealistic rule of living: assume nothing. Hypothesis: knowing and accepting those deeply embedded assumptions is knowing and accepting who we are.

As a teacher, I have used a simple exercise with small group of adult and adolescent students that helps them confront some of their assumptions, and with sufficient reflection, may have helped them more or less consistently confront assumptions in general. Each group of three to five is given two or three pennies. They all know what the penny is, of course, even though Visa and Square may be leading to penny obsolescence. The groups are then given these instructions:

You are an extra-terrestrial archeological team. You have arrived at a lifeless planet in a remote corner of space. The only evidence you have found that life existed here in some distant past are the objects you see before you. You may conclude from their material and general evenness of shape that they were fashioned, and not naturally occurring. All the rules of physics as we know then apply. We know they are copper, which is easily smelted from copper ore in a hot fire, for example.

What certain conclusions can you draw about their maker or makers from this archeological evidence? What speculations can you make about the makers of these objects? Conclusions require verifiable fact, what is known; assume nothing. Speculation combines fact and justifiable assumptions; make these very carefully.

The teams generally draw similar conclusions, which are really only speculations, and even then, flawed by supposition. They almost always make mention of Lincoln’s head on one side. This is a great place to start the conversation around the question: How do you know that? The embedded assumption, of course, is that the extra-terrestrials are sufficiently anthropomorphic to recognize a bas-relief figure on a disk as a “head” and all that goes with that. Big assumption?

Huge! We, as any science fiction writer will tell you, are desperately chauvinistic. Notice that the common language of the universe, with or without translators, is English, as in the Star Trek series and films. We accept that vocalization is the universal standard of communications; the use of English, because of the audience, has a better foundation. And sentient beings therefore have heads. It is simply how we can accept the vast possibilities of the universe, defining to the limits of what is known.

Science is at work to undo the two inconceivabilities we have been told about the universe: that there is empty space in it and that there is nothing beyond it—it goes infinitely on. The universe is finite, so must everything within it be finite and comprehensible. Nothingness and infinity are not humanly comprehendible. We can only comprehend through our senses. Try comprehending before and after time, by comparison. Our senses and our experiences are our assumptive limits, and only our imaginations can take us beyond. Yet, even the language of imagination must struggle mightily to get beyond the known, having simply been reordered. Imagination at its fullest power must enter the unknown; it must “go where no man has gone before.” A very courageous journey, but loaded with potential discovery.

Embarking on that journey requires the abandonment of those assumptions that shackle us, while at the same time using those assumptions to define our point of departure. Hence the penny exercise starts us on the process of identifying our embedded assumptions by simply forcing us to recognize their existence, subliminal to how our eyes and ears construct reality from reflected light and vibrating air molecules. The penny exercise can be the starting point of other enlightening pursuits as well.

Not only does the exercise force us to confront our limitations as imaginative beings, it also reveals to us the essence of who we are. Since our embedded assumptions are formed of experience, we can expect a more coherent and functional set of assumptions to arise from a more coherent and well-functioning set of experiences, given psycho-physical predispositions and freedom from traumas. Hence an early, on-going, rich set of experiences will position one better than a delayed, sporadic, diminished set. If the latter situation has occurred, the development of a solid personal identity could be doomed.

In any event, the embedded assumptions are essential to our identity. These are assumptions about how the world is or should be, and define how we are situated in that world. The world, reality, appears as it does because of our vantage point. Our experiences create a set of sensory inputs which have relationship to one another, and to us the observers. Those relationships define where we are in that cosmos, and where we are is who we are. We look out from a platform of assumptions about what the world is to see if things are more or less “like me” or “as I expect them to be” or not. That which is “not” can range from the familiarly different to the totally unknown, the incomprehensible. This perception of what the world is our provinces of reality, our crib, our family, our community, and so on as we develop.

As individuals move beyond their familiar provinces, they discover the world is largely not like them or what they expect. How one deals with that increasing assortment of otherness, is beyond this discussion, but in the absence of a fairly secure sense of self, managing life in a world of others is going to be a little tricky. What should one expect and what accept? When should one ask and when tell? Where should one be and where not? Needing to successfully manage this reality makes my argument for the formation of an clear and even strong individual identity. To manage in a world of others, we need a secure personal identity.

I think it also points us toward an argument for the sharing with and ultimately accepting of others as individual identities who are different but of equal essential value. Grasping the idea of one’s own unique identity and accepting that others also have a unique identity avoids the walls of categorical assumptions that have disabled constructive conversation. Thus we may begin the conversations between people that bind them into communities, sharing commonalities and understanding, often empathizing with their individual differences.

Beyond exercises like the penny archeology one, we should move toward deeper and more directed personal identity and community building activities—activities that are challenging, revealing, safe and rewarding. Such activities will require an environment where there are rewards without penalties for risk-taking, respect without attack in the presence of vulnerability, and where there is shelter without shame in any case. On the part of the teacher, there must be courage and faith, and, if it works, there must be Kleenex.