“How you think and what you do has an effect. On everything…”
[Originally published on MySpace on March 13, 2010. Comments reconstructed below.]
4-5-10 To anyone who takes a peek, yes, I am writing the next blog. Hope to have it up in the next day or two…
If anyone has ever challenged you with the question, “Oh yeah? How do YOU know?” then you’ve already been introduced to the subject of epistemology. In somewhat academic terms, epistemology is the branch of philosophy (and sociology, actually) that deals with the nature of knowledge—how it’s acquired, what its limits are, if and how it affects and effects existence, etc.
…skipping over the rest of a large academic discussion to get to the important part, which is my opinion…
Why do I think this is important enough to put in a blog, especially now that my Mom’s kicked the bucket and isn’t going to therefore read it and pat me on the head? Well, just about ALL of you have probably also heard the saying, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” right? And you’ve probably all heard the answer to that, which is “Wrong!” The part that might be new goes, “What you DO know can also hurt you, and your neighbor, your friends, your family, strangers, your dog, your cat, and indeed your entire planet.”
How you think and what you do has an effect. On everything. Call it the Butterfly Effect if you like. Conversely, what other people think and what they do has an effect. On everything—which includes you. This is because what you think and how you act is embedded in a cultural context that exists simultaneously in the here-and-now and as an on-going historical process. In other words, we create our world day in and day out through a process of culture, which includes things like norms, traditions, customs, standards, rules, criteria, ideals, values, morals, etc. It also includes things like stereotypes, prejudices and assumptions. It even includes things like fashion, style, fad, craze, and, God help us all, school of thought and paradigm. All of these, for each of us, add up to a particular way of looking at the world around us, such that we make choices in a particular way in keeping with our world view.
We’ve all heard the expression “thinking outside the box.” Everyone knows what that means in some amorphous sense, but I’m going to give it a little bit of shape anyway. This means that you take a particular situation which is traditionally defined in a certain way and you step outside the borders of that tradition, dragging those borders along behind you, so that now the box contains new ground which can then be used for innovation within the particular situation originally defined.
Here’s an example most of us are familiar with:
A farmer is standing on the bank of a river with a fox, a chicken and a bag of grain. He needs to get to the other side of the river, taking all three with him. However, the farmer’s boat is only big enough to carry the farmer and one other thing, so he’ll need to make several trips to get everything across. How can he do this so that the fox doesn’t eat the chicken and the chicken doesn’t eat the grain?
The traditional answer is the farmer takes the chicken across first, leaving the fox and the grain together on the river bank. Then he returns and collects the fox, but when he gets to the other side of the river, he takes the chicken back across with him so the fox can’t eat the chicken. He drops the chicken back off on the original side of the river and takes the grain across, then finally comes back for the chicken.
You don’t have to stop there, of course. Another wit posed this answer: barbeque the chicken and boil the grain, eat it yourself, and then you and the fox go on your merry way, taking all three across the river at once, thus saving multiple trips and a lot of time.
When this conundrum was originally posed, it was difficult for people to solve, because it didn’t at first occur to them that they could take something back across the river (or eat the chicken and grain themselves). The ability to solve this puzzle demonstrated a capacity to think “outside the box” to come up with innovative solutions that still fit within the definition of the original problem.
What I would like to point out is that the original problem is what’s known as a given. No one questions the way the problem is defined to start with, they just assume that was all they had with which to work. For instance, the first thing that occurred to me when I heard this was “what the heck is the farmer doing standing on the bank of a river with a chicken and a fox that are not in crates, if it’s important to him to keep them from running away (or attacking each other) long enough at least to get them across the river?” How about what’s the farmer doing with a fox to start with? Chicken and grain make sense, but what if he stole them? IS he actually a farmer? Is the boat the only way to get across the river? Why doesn’t he just pull out his tricorder and demand that Scottie beam him up?
And here’s some REALLY good ones: Who is asking this question about farmers and critters, and what is his or her agenda? What is my agenda?? And even, why is it important to think outside the box? Who cares?!
Do the questions I just listed above constitute hair splitting, some of them? Are they beside the point? Am I failing to play the game properly by questioning the original set up, even to the extent that I seem to wander far off the original point or else introduce what most would consider absurdity?
Or yes and no, actually. As an entry-level training exercise, the idea represented by the solution of making multiple trips back and forth is useful and sufficient for expanding the trainee’s thinking.
If we’re in the business of solving real world problems, however, this isn’t enough. (“Wait! Whachoo mean ‘we’, Paleface?” you’re probably asking right now. At least, I hope you are.) We REALLY need to be able to spot the boarders of any given situation and QUESTION what’s “given” about them. What are the assumptions, including our own assumptions, and what effect do these assumptions imply in terms of action?
To illustrate my point, I’ve designed an exercise using a real world situation: a thirteen year old adolescent tries to commit suicide despite the fact that she lives in a nice house with plenty to eat and do, with two parents and a sibling who all love her, she’s smart and funny with a well-rounded set of developable talents and inclinations—yet she’s completely miserable.
What’s the problem here? What happened? What other questions might we ask besides these first two?
Here’s your assignment, Class: think about it. And oh my goodness yes, this is absolutely a trick question. Bearing in mind what I said above about epistemology, and about the idea I posed that what you think and what you do has an effect, and that what other people likewise think and do also has an effect, let’s see if anyone gets the trick.
Tell me what you think.
By the way, there are no right or wrong answers. That definitely is beside the point.
I’ll come back with a new blog in a week to two weeks with the next bit of discussion on this topic. In that blog, I’ll give you some of my ideas regarding the exercise above, and, assuming there are any, I’ll include points made in comments left by you folks on this blog as part of the discussion as well.
By the way, if you’re more comfortable sending me an email, go ahead, though I encourage you to get involved with other folks in the discussion.
Please. Do not flame anyone (um, including me). The idea here is to begin to solve problems, not create new ones.
“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci
7:55 AM 20 Comments 6 Kudos