In general, I hate loaded distinctions. In an interview with the BBC, Ursula Le Guin said how SF (her preferred term for science fiction) had a distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sci-fi, where it is inherent in that conceptualisation that nobody wanted to write ‘soft’ sci-fi. Often these kinds of distinctions imply a certain superiority of one approach to another. Quantitative over qualitative, theoretical or pure over applied, real skills over soft skills. Another distinction I absolutely hate is when people say ‘I’m more a numbers/words than a words/numbers’ person. To me this latter attitude suggests of a fundamentally and intellectually limited individual. How does one explain the beauty of J.S. Bach to such a person, or Schoenberg, who combine the formal with the emotional.
One thing I like to try and do is combine an aspect of theoretical knowledge and make it applied to my life. I may have talked about the learning method I developed in my teens which helped me memorise music and other things (which I no longer use), but I’ve always enjoyed the prospect of making a system that tries to work for me. I’ll introduce two such concepts which I’ve tried to apply in organising and approaching my life.
Plasticity in a most general sense is the notion that being able to cope with new and different situations as opposed to the routine and familiar, creates new pathways of thinking and learning. Part of this comes from the cognitive sciences while I came across it through my meanderings in philosophy of psychology. Maybe one day when plasticity is thrown out of the science books as hokum I will sound hopelessly eccentric.
As a person who is obsessed with routine, coming across changes and unfamiliarity can be difficult. One thing I do is every month I set a task to do something completely different and unfamiliar. This might involve going to a new place that i don’t know, talk to people in a place where I know nobody or do something completely out of my regular experience. I find personally that it helps my sense of resilience to unfamiliarity and it also opens new thoughts and options to me. Sometimes there are routine behaviours that we commit to, such as staying on the left side of the road whenever I walk a mile to the tube station, and instead go on the right. I become aware that routine tasks involve less thought and new tasks can involve a bit of anxiety because of its lack of familiarity.
One way in which I try to overcome anxiety and unfamiliarity is to purposely dive into it in a controlled way. I have a one situation per month quota, but lately I’ve exceeded my monthly target. Which is nice.
Formal approaches to decisions
Another ongoing story of my life is the way in which I try to use decision theory and innovations in operations analysis (they are overlapping academic areas) to work on short term and long term decisions. You might call this my way of following Kant’s dictum of formalisation as a desiderata for scientific reasoning. I have created a scheduling system which uses a variety of cues and schema which I have created that denote priorities, goals, and other kinds of classification.
The notion of a decision matrix is a formalised and idealised way of weighing decisions in as explicit a manner as possible. Formal models of reasoning is an area that I don’t understand terribly well but I have found some notions quite useful. I have found that as an approach to life, having a plan and then commiting to it saves a lot of thought and effort compared to deciding an outcome before each action. I do this in a variety of ways: sometimes when I go to the gym I don’t take my wallet with me, this avoids any temptation, or decision process of ‘shall I get something on the way home?’, this decision process was also inspired by Homer’s Oddessy and the part where Odysseus put wax into his ears to avoid hearing the Sirens.
To think that the insight of Homer has come full circle to becoming part of this formalised notion of rationality pleases me, it also answers to that limited person who would ever say ‘I’m more of a current affairs person than an (sic) history person’. There are many rational connections to be made in the world, limited mainly by your imagination and your prejudices. My use of decision matrices in planning my daily life has brought some success, but it’s still a work in progress. The fact that it is still process of refinement also reminds me of Kant’s notion of the regulative a priori.