In yesterday’s post, I presented a goldfish bowl-half empty view of the prospects we face to internalise insights from cognitive science and develop new behaviours to better deal directly with our complex environment.
Now, I’d like to start considering more of a goldfish bowl-half full view and ideally, get some ideas on how we can escape the loop of forgetfulness (or denial).
To start, and in keeping with the historical references behind some of these ideas, let’s begin with Heinrich Hertz’s introduction to The Principles of Mechanics in 1899.
The most direct, and in a sense the most important, problem which our conscious knowledge of nature should enable us to solve is the anticipation of future events, so that we may arrange our present affairs in accordance with such anticipation. As a basis for the solution of this problem, we always make use of our knowledge of events which have already occurred, obtained by chance observation or by prearranged experiment…… When from our accumulated previous experience we have once succeeded in deducing images of the desire nature, we can then in short time develop by means of them, as by means of models, the consequences which in the external world of models, the consequences which in the external world only arise in a comparatively long time, or as the result of our own interposition. We are thus enabled to be in advance of the facts, and to decide as to present affairs in accordance with the insight so obtained….
The images which we may form of things are not determined without ambiguity by the requirement that the consequents of the images must be images of the consequents. Various images of the same objects are possible, and these images may differ in various respects. We should at once denote as inadmissible all images which implicitly contradict the laws of our thought. Hence we postulate in the first place that all our images shall be logically permissible – or, briefly, that they shall be permissible.
You hear in these words, some of the fundamentals of science, the principle of rational analysis and decision making behaviours and, by extension, the fundamentals of risk management.
What happens when nature is found to be contradictory to current knowledge? What happens when our knowledge of previous events does not prepare us for the future or leads to assume incorrectly that we are ‘in advance of the facts’?
Clearly, in some situations, the quality of our evidence may be poor and a lack of logical consistency might be proof of poor data and rightly ignored.
Scientific discovery often introduces new evidence which contradicts the ‘facts’. Over time, experimentation and consistency of evidence leads to new ‘facts’. The more counterintuitive, the harder it is to accept these new facts. In 1899 Hertz wrote about ‘mechanics’ – the ideas of that time are now taken for granted and we have moved on to grapple with quantum mechanics.
If we are to accept the growing body of consistent evidence regarding the psychology (and possibly the underlying physics) of our behaviour, we will need to find a way to apply Hertz’s framework to a world which we are beginning to realise remains largely unknown from the past and contradictory to our present common sense.
Instead of expecting tomorrow to be like yesterday, we will need to learn how to expect the unexpected.