Which way is up?

Which way is up?

Go ahead and point. Not just with one finger, but really commit to it, like you did in grade school when you knew the answer and wanted, no, had to tell the class. Get your whole arm into it. Are you around strangers? That’s OK, they’ll forgive you. That cute person in the room might even ask what you’re up to. There is no reason to feel foolish.

Now that you have committed yourself I’ll tell you the correct answer: You’re wrong. You should feel foolish. You should hang your head in shame like a puppy that wet on the carpet. You should hope beyond hope no one saw you pointing.

It’s not entirely your fault that you made such a horrendous mistake. I had a hand in it. You see there was a bit of deception on my part; the question contained a little white lie. The lie lies in the word “up.” The concept of the word “up” is flawed. This is obvious if you imagine two people, one on the North Pole and the other on the South Pole, simultaneously pointing “up”. They are pointing in precisely the opposite direction.

But what is up?

Could we just redefine “up” to be: a direction away from the center of the Earth (the center of gravity)?

No. Imagine a third person standing on the Moon pointing “up.” That person on the Moon can point straight up to someone on the Earth that is also pointing straight up to the person on the moon!

Now the best definition of “up” we could ever get would be something like: “opposite the center of gravity of the largest nearby mass.” Using that definition when we use “up” we would only mean the same thing in a very small number of all possible situations. For example, when two or more small things (humans, for example) are very near one another and very close to something with much more gravity (moon sized+ object). Only then will they agree on which way is “up.”

Let us revisit our explorers on the poles. The lady at the North Pole pointing “up” sincerely feels that she is correct. The gentleman at the South Pole genuinely feels that he is correctly pointing “up.” Both have a preponderance of evidence to back up their claim. As people’s reputations, status, financial welling being, etc. become more entwined with their particular stance on the “up question,” their ability or even desire to seek, explore, or consider a third person or more universal perspective is eroded.

This is how wars begin.

As long as the initial premise is flawed (“up”) there will be no resolution, both sides will feel they are correct. Indeed both sides will be correct! But here “correct” is based on a flawed premise and, as we have seen, just as there are an infinite number of “ups” there will be an infinite number of “correct” answers!

How many of today’s problems and controversies exist because of the “mistaken up”?


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