The Indian and the Ice: When to Believe Something

Imagine a woman living in India in the 18th or 19th century[1]. Her cousin, the sailor, has just returned from a trading voyage and, after being suitably plied with food and attention, tells his audience about distant lands where it is so cold that water becomes as hard as wood; you can break off a piece of water and hold it in two fingers.

The woman doesn’t believe him. His story seems utterly fantastical. In her experience, water is never hard. It’s always liquid or gas. As much as she wants to trust her beloved cousin, he’s also a sailor, just like the ones who have passed through town in the past, talking about mermaids and six-headed serpents.


[1] I got this analogy from The Pig that Wants to Be Eaten, by Julian Baggini. He, in turn credits it to David Hume’s On Miracles, though I gather that the analogy of the Indian and the ice didn’t actually appear in On Miracles, but rather arose out of criticism of that work.

Clearly, the Indian woman is wrong: there is such a thing as ice. But I’d argue that she’s wrong for the right reason: being too skeptical, rather than too gullible. And this is one of those cases where reality turns out to be weirder than she could imagine.

Forming an accurate understanding of the world is a balancing act: I don’t want to admit too many untrue ideas, but I don’t want to just disbelieve everything, because I also want to admit true ideas. And I also don’t want to spend my life on the fence about everything. So I use rules of thumb, which don’t always work. And so sometimes, I’m wrong.

Like other atheists and skeptics, I’ve been accused of being closed-minded. The analogy of the Indian woman and the ice is just the sort of thing a critic could point to. More things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy and all that.

But for every such nugget of implausible truth, there are several metric tons of bullshit. The Indian sailor’s story of hard water sounds, to the woman, just like other stories about six-headed monsters, centaurs, mermaids, and floating mountains. And so she’s right to reject it, at least until such time as good evidence comes along.

The cost of believing too much is measured in money and in human lives. Tim Farley keeps a running tally at What’s the Harm?. The cost of believing too little seems, to me, much lower. So it’s a chance I’m willing to take.

8 thoughts on “The Indian and the Ice: When to Believe Something”

  1. I would argue that she should be less skeptical of this story than the others. She probably knows of cases where a substance changes from solid to liquid on cooling – cooking fat and some metals used for casting. It shouldn’t be incredible that water could be another such substance, when cooled to a temperature she hasn’t experienced.

    The duckbilled platypus, on the other hand – no-one should believe that without seeing it.

    1. Yeah, no analogy is perfect. I was thinking of the village smith last night, myself (of course, I was also thinking about Mark Twain’s comment that the word “cold” in India is just there to allow you to distinguish weather that’ll melt a brass doorknob from weather that’ll only make it mushy). The important parts are that she’s confronted with a claim that happens to be true, but looks like a lot of false ones, and is presented without evidence.

    2. Hmmm. Seems to me that while she *could* make the analogy to the melting/freezing behaviour of other substances, there’s no compelling reason for her to do so. In a non-scientifically informed worldview, would it even be obvious that different substances should behave analogously? After all, not all solids in her world melt when hot — think of the wood or charcoal she uses in her cooking fire, which instead turn into flame (temporarily) and then ash.

      From my (so far scant) readings in the history of science, it seems like many advances were made only when someone came up with the right way of framing a phenomenon — that A was (in some important but not naked-eye-obvious way) similar to B but different from C, and then exploring why.

      1. Ah, you mean like Isaac Newton, who proposed that if it weren’t for whatever it is that makes every moving object stop after a while, that a moving object would continue moving indefinitely?

        1. That would be one example, yes. I was reading a book recently about 17th century science, and how they grappled with the idea of “motion”, which up until then was not much more than a vague intuition. Eventually it turned out that they needed two concepts (momentum and kinetic energy) to really be able to describe and analyze what was going on with moving and colliding bodies. There were similar conceptual gropings concerning “electric fluid” and “electric atmosphere” (ie. the field surrounding a charged object) And it didn’t help that they didn’t know enough about electricity to design experiments that would yield consistent results — it was very much a bootstrapping operation.

          Think about all the basic physical formulae you were taught in high school and first year — every symbol in those expressions is a triumph of insight, of someone realizing that there is a discrete “thing” here, something that allows one to carve nature at the joints.

          (This no longer has much to do with the original post, does it?)

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