Sunday, March 27, 2011

Redefining the Unknown

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)
I was reminded this week of Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws, which have been oft quoted in science fiction films and literature.  In case you aren't familiar with these tidbits of wisdom, they are:

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.


Although the Third Law is probably the most familiar, it was the first two that got me thinking this week, especially about the unknowable.

For a couple of years, I was quite intentional about making decisions based on verifiable data, and not making decisions based on things that I didn't actually know (like how someone would react, or what would happen in the future).  Sometimes these predictions seem like absolute fact because they are so believable, especially if one is aware of certain patterns.  If Bob has gotten angry every time I have mentioned his ex-wife in the past, I have every reason to suspect that he will get angry if I mention her again, even though I don't actually know what Bob will do.  Criminals sometimes convince themselves that they will get away with a crime based entirely upon false assumptions about what other people will or will not do.  Making decisions based on information that is created entirely in one's own mind can be dangerous, or at least frustrating.  Most people can't predict the future nearly as well as they think they can.

That being said, there are some things that are probable even if they are technically in the realm of the unknown.  Once I realize that Bob is likely to get angry if I mention his ex-wife, but admit that I don't know for sure what Bob is going to do, I can decide how much value there is in testing my hypothesis.  Dismissing a pattern of behavior entirely, simply because Bob's future behavior is technically unknown, is honestly a rather stupid approach.  Scientists operate all the time in the realm of the unknown, testing hypotheses to see how accurate their predictions are, and correcting things along the way to learn as much as possible and get to a desired result.  Strategists in many fields operate in the realms of the unknown, predicting (with varying degrees of accuracy) what outcomes will result in the future from actions taken right now.  They can't possibly know the future, but they can make predictions.

During the time that I was attempting to base all of my decisions exclusively on verifiable data, I lost a job, threw money away, and spent a lot of time on fruitless efforts, all because I could not claim absolute certainty about future events.  In so doing, I discounted a huge portion of my personal strength.  I am a person who resonates with Clarke's Second Law, willing to push past the knowable into the unknown.  But such endeavors are not usually done haphazardly.  Usually, a scientist conducting an experiment has some data upon which a hypothesis is based, and that hypothesis is fine tuned by a number of intelligent predictions.  It isn't just a matter of throwing a dart without regard to the dartboard.

In all honesty, I think that people who are observant can make a great many reliable predictions.  Sometimes our minds trick us into seeing "patterns" where none actually exist, but the answer is not to discount the unknown and operate completely blind to such predictions.  Instead, it is better to venture into unknown territory with both eyes open, aware that our forecasts may be inaccurate, but willing to test them and see what happens.  Playing it safe and hedging bets are the kinds of things that lead distinguished but elderly experts to claim that something is impossible.  It would perhaps be more accurate to use "unknown" in the place of "impossible".  Personally, attempting the impossible seems foolhardy and unsatisfying, but attempting the unknown can be pretty inspiring.

So while I acknowledge that I cannot accurately predict the future, I can also acknowledge that my strategic and forward-thinking mind is a powerful tool that can guide me in a keenly directed exploration of the unknown.  If all of my decisions are based entirely on what I can know with utmost certainty, they are based on inaccuracy and half-truths.  It is actually much easier to be manipulated when one discounts personal discernment as essentially unknown and unverifiable.  Rather than discount it outright, I now believe that it is better to trust myself and work toward verifying the intelligent hypotheses of my insightful mind, reaching perhaps a bit past what I know to be possible.  I'm not sure how a person can grow otherwise.

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