Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thinking makes it so.

I've been thinking about this passage recently; it's a classic, but I'll share it anyways...

Hamlet: What have you, my good friends, deserv'd at the hands of Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?

Guildenstern: Prison, my lord?

Hamlet: Denmark's a prison.

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.

Hamlet: A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o' th' worst.

Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet: Why then 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.


Recent life events have only deepened my belief in this last principle. The entirety of mathematics rests on defining a few basic axioms or truths, and seeing what useful things follow as consequences of these definitions, noticing patterns and arriving at theorems. In less deterministic realms, such as experiments, or social/economic/competitive games we think of the probability or likelihood of a particular result occurring, relative to a set of potential outcomes. We recognize that these outcomes are driven both by the mechanisms of the process being tested by the experiment, or the rules of the game being played, and the variation of experimental units or the actions of individuals playing the game.

There is a lot of power in this paradigm. If we can understand the patterns that arise, and predict events or truths, we can work backwards to uncover the nature of the underlying axioms, rules, and mechanisms. The converse is true as well; propose a mechanism, and design experiments to see if the results match patterns predicted by your hypothesized mechanism. This is the heart of science, and also, I would argue, the essence of the deductive/inductive approach we take (whether consciously or unconsciously) towards understanding all of our world as individuals.

I think there is a second aspect to this paradigm that is just as powerful, but less commonly taken advantage of. Basically, recognizing that the definition of a system determines the behaviors it can and cannot exhibit, the power lies in changing the definitions to achieve a desired end. In other words, if we recognize that thinking a certain way makes a specific perspective or belief true, and we have a desire to change this perspective or belief, we need merely change the way that we think. Change the rules of the game, and you can make the impossible possible.

The lesson? Chose your definitions carefully, and intentionally, for the sake of making your desired outcome convenient or more probable (Note: not necessarily a good practice in the world of objective science, but often perfectly acceptable in social and personal interaction). By changing the way you see the world, or yourself, or a situation, you change what is possible in a situation, or for yourself, or for your world. Change the rules and you change the game. Don't be surprised if you formulate a set of rules and see the game play out exactly as predicted.

Philosophical Theo is signing off for now.

1 comment:

sarcozona said...

Reminded me of one of my favorite quotes:

Yet with support from others, remarkable change remains possible. If our relationships with others make us what we are, then we can potentially remake ourselves by relating differently to others, or by forming relationships with different others. As long as there exists the possibility of doing this, of making these kinds of changes, we need not resign ourselves to accepting everything that has been instilled in us by a particular form of social life. We can always pursue growth and change in directions of our own choosing.

I don't remember where I read it, but it's always helped me move on in difficult situations.