Friday, September 11, 2009

Thinking and Acting

Of all the things my parents taught me, it was the general rules of life that stuck with me the longest. Perhaps the first and most persistent of these was embodied by the admonition to “think before you act.” This could mean planning, as my mother interpreted it -- figuring out exactly what you will do and when, and then following the schedule as close as possible. It could alternatively mean striving to understand the variables involved in reaching the goal of the action -- my father’s approach -- and then updating that understanding in the process of acting, allowing also for an adjustment in the definition of the goal (or, as he sometimes said, “If you don’t get where you’re going, you’ll get someplace just as good”).

I chose to follow my father’s example; though I occasionally find myself emulating my mother, such as when driving to a new place. I also tend to spend much more time refining my definition of the goal before going too far, mainly in response to the negative results of not doing so that I’ve witnessed over the years, especially in business.

Refining a goal, counter to what it sounds like, usually results in a broadening of the definition. Again, my father provided the initial guidance, generalizing into one basic question the lessons he learned while studying value engineering: “What is it I really want to accomplish, stated in the most fundamental terms?” For example, buying food becomes “being able to feed my family,” which offers more options than just relying on the places that sell the stuff. More options translate into a higher chance of success, as well as allowing us to better determine whether the goal is even worth pursuing.

Sometimes it is good to act impulsively, when some thought has identified a higher cost to action than inaction, or when there just isn’t enough information available to even decide what to do. There is no excuse for ignorance, because the indicated action is to learn, which may involve gathering second-hand knowledge (through reading or asking someone) or simply just doing something and analyzing the consequences.

For most of my life I suffered from a serious lack of self-confidence, which in part was due to a deep awareness of how little I knew, or could ever hope to know, compared to my father. I was not rebellious by nature, and unlike most of my peers growing up, I tried to become more, not less, like my parents. I learned by reading and doing, and gradually, by thinking for myself; but I too easily let others set my goals, learning a lot of skills I really didn’t have much personal interest in, yet I was convinced were too important not to have.

The contribution that gave me the most pleasure making (and still does) was asking questions no one else thought of, causing everyone around me to discover something totally new in a situation they believed they understood. “Discovering the obvious” was a skill I had in equal measure with my father, and was something we enjoyed doing together as equals, personally and professionally, right until the time he died. This kind of discovery -- the elaborate interplay between thinking and action in both the most mundane and the most unusual circumstances -- has revealed that thinking before you act is too confining a rule, because it presupposes that thinking can stop when you start to act, and because it assumes that the point of thinking and acting should be merely to reach a specific objective (including avoidance of a negative outcome from acting without thought).

I have personally decided that, everywhere I am, I will continue developing and sharing a growing understanding of the world by both thinking and acting, and continue to do so for as many years as I can. In the process, I will help enable other people to do the same into as distant a future as natural laws will allow.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Name Calling

“They’re idiots!” I’ve long recoiled at such statements, partly because for the first 30 years of my life I often used them to describe myself, and partly because as I grew older it became clear that all of us have areas we can improve on.

Name calling is something we all learn as children. In my opinion, it serves two purposes. First, it enforces uniformity in a group while communicating one’s identity as part of the group. Second, it teaches simplistic ways of understanding the world by categorizing people according to a limited set of characteristics.

I’ve had two episodes as an adult when name calling was too prevalent to ignore. The first was when a coworker in a blue collar job I held for a few months insisted that another pair of coworkers were stupid because they were creationists. The second was when the Bush administration’s unwillingness and inability to accept reality led to wholesale destruction of life, liberty, and natural systems. To some extent, these two examples were related, because Bush and many of his supporters were also creationists.

I didn’t hear of creationism until the first episode in the early 1990s. Everyone I’d associated with were either well-grounded in science, or at least well enough educated in high school biology to know that evolution formed the basis of much of our understanding of the world. I was so surprised that someone would believe otherwise that I developed a dialog with the two creationist coworkers in an attempt to provide mutual education. I soon discovered that they not only assumed that evolution had been debunked, but that the laws of physics (particularly the speed of light) were intentionally altered by God to test people’s faith; in particular, stars are much closer (and apparently much cooler) than they appear. Particularly ironic was the fact that we all worked in a semiconductor clean room, whose existence depended on the laws of physics being correct.

Trying to keep an open mind, and finding that doing so made me a pariah among the literalist Christians, I finally concluded that faith had deluded these people into believing pure fantasy that could be easily debunked. Besides, if evolution as an explanation of empirical reality was flawed, it was because it was part of the ongoing process of refining understanding that defines science. Newton’s Law of Gravity may not be purely accurate, but it explains a lot, is still useful, and is subsumed in its more accurate successor, Einstein’s General Law of Relativity (which itself is in the process of being updated).

Whereas science flourishes and grows when problems are found with its tenets, I realized that the world view held by the creationists was like the proverbial house built of sand; all it took was a strong “wind” to destroy huge chunks of it, so any challenges must be met with full force. I came to accept that such unwillingness to challenge one’s beliefs is dangerous, not only to individuals but to all of society and must be fought just as hard. If it takes some name calling to chastise those immature enough for it to have an effect, then name calling is justified; but ONLY then.

The unwillingness to challenge one’s beliefs was, I think, the main reason for the waste, destruction, and death that was caused by the Bush administration and the people who support it to this day. This isn’t to say that the rest of us don’t share some of the blame for what’s happened. We let the pursuit of personal power trump the survival of all because we accept certain core tenets of daily existence, many of them economic, that like Newton’s laws of physics are not adequate explanations for the phenomena we are experiencing in a world of observably and exponentially diminishing resources. The difference may be that we can recognize and draw complex abstract curves, while they choose to only recognize simple ones drawn by others; so we at least have a chance of figuring out a solution before all is lost.

A disturbing “name” has been floating into my consciousness more and more frequently lately: “planet killing zombies.” I recently used the term “vampire” to describe corporations which suck the life out of us through advertising-laden entertainment, basically turning many of us into what the new term represents. These epithets are simplistic and insulting, but they do embody certain characteristics that focus our attention, just as any simple theory only explains a part of reality that we choose to measure. This use of name calling, instructional as it is, therefore has some positive value if it helps challenge our beliefs and our images of ourselves as part of a process of finding more accurate ones and altering them through real action into more healthy ones.