Understanding the Past

Understanding the Past

I am always fascinated by the idea, that continually demonstrates validity in my own life, that the more we learn about something, the more realize how little we actually know about it. I am currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and I am continually struck by how often Harari brings in events from mankind’s history that I had never heard about. The more I learn about the past, or about any given subject, the more I realize how little knowledge I have ever had, and how limited, narrow, and sometimes just flat out inaccurate my understandings have been.

 

This is particularly important when it comes to how we think about the past. I believe very strongly that our reality and the worlds in which we live and inhabit are mostly social constructions. The trees, houses, and roads are all real, but how we understand the physical objects, the spaces we operate, and how we use the real material things in our worlds is shaped to an incredible degree by social constructions and the relationships we build between ourselves and the world we inhabit. In order to understand these constructions and in order to shape them for a future that we want to live in (and are physiologically capable of living in) we need to understand the past and make predictions about the future with new social constructs that enable continued human flourishing.

 

To some extent, this feels easy and natural to us. We all have a story and we learn and adopt family stories, national stories, and global stories about the grand arc of humanity. But while our stories seem to be shared, and while we seem to know where we are heading, we all operate based on individual understandings of the past, and where that means we are (or should be) heading. As Daniel Kahneman writes in his  book Thinking Fast and Slow, “we believe we understand the past, which implies that the future also should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less that we believe we do.”

 

As I laid out to begin this post, there is always so much more complexity and nuance to anything that we might study and be familiar with than we often realize. We can feel that we know something well when we are ignorant of the nuance and complexity. When we start to really untangle something, whether it be nuclear physics, the history of the American Confederacy, or how our fruits and veggies get to the supermarket, we realize that we really don’t know and understand anything as well as we might intuitively believe.

 

When we lack a deep and complex understanding of the past, because we just don’t know about something or because we didn’t have an accurate and detailed presentation of the thing from the past, then we are likely to misinterpret and misunderstand how we got to our current point. By having a limited historical perspective and understanding, we will incorrectly assess where our best future lies. It is important that we recognize how limited our knowledge is, and remember that these limits will shape the extent to which we can make valid predictions for the future.
Ignore Our Ignorance

Ignore Our Ignorance

There is a quote that is attributed to Harry Truman along the lines of, “give me a one-handed economist.” The quote references the frustrations that any key decision-maker might have when faced with challenging and sometimes conflicting information and choices. On the one hand is a decision with a predicted set of outcomes, but on the other hand is another decision or a separate undesirable set of consequences. The quote shows how challenging it is to understand and navigate the world when you have complex and nuanced understandings of what is happening.

 

Living in ignorance actually makes choices and decisions easier – there is no other hand of separate choices, of negative consequences, or different points of view. Ignoring our ignorance is preferable when we live our own narrative constructions, where what we see is all there is, and reality is what we make it to be.

 

Daniel Kahneman writes about this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, and how these narrative fallacies lead to so many of our predictable cognitive errors. He writes, “Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

 

When I think about Kahneman’s quote, I think about myself upon graduating with a Masters in Public Administration and Policy and my older sister upon her high school graduation. My sister has had strong political views for a very long time, views that she readily adopted as a high school student. Her self-assured profession of her political views which contrasted against the self-assured political views of my parents is part of what sparked an interest in me to study political science and public policy. I wanted to understand how people became so sure of political views that I didn’t fully understand, but which I could see contained multitudes of perspectives, benefits, and costs.

 

At the completion of my degree I felt that I had a strong understanding of the political processes in the United States. I could understand how public policy was shaped and formed, I could describe how people came to hold various points of view and why some people might favor different policies. But what I did not gain was a sense that one particular political approach was necessarily correct or inherently better than any other. So much of our political process is dependent on who stands to benefit, what is in our individual self-interest, and what our true goals happen to be. At the completion of a study of politics, I felt that I knew more than many, but I did not exactly feel that my political opinions were stronger than the political opinions of my sisters when she graduated high school. Her opinions were formed in ignorance (not saying this in a mean way!), and her limited perspective allowed her to be more confident in her opinions than I could be with my detailed and nuanced upstanding of political systems and processes.

 

Our views of the world and how we understand our reality is shaped by the information we absorb and the experiences we have. What you see is all there is, and the narrative you live within will make more sense when you are more ignorant of the complexities of the world around you. Your narrative will be simpler and more coherent since there won’t be other hands to contrast against your opinions, desires, and convictions.

Binary Decisions

One of the things I try hard to stay away from is believing that any given situation is ever just a binary — a this or that, one thing or the other, situation. There is a lot of nuance in our lives and in almost any situation we have multiple options available to us that often exist on a continuum. Very rarely in our life is something either a yes or no decision and very rarely can anything be defined as a purely either/or option. Whether it is parenting styles, diets, exercise, politics, or cooking, we almost always live somewhere in a middle place defined by lots of gray. But this makes life complex, and our brain likes finding patterns, so we tend to reduce things to binaries to create simpler realities for our minds to sort out.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at what this tendency of ours leads to in the world of business in his book The Coaching Habit and references research from Chip and Dan Heath in their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. Their research looked at a business study from Paul Nutt who found that 71 percent of organizational decisions within a company were treated as binary, either this or that decisions. In the world of business, where a company needs to be competitive and make strategic decisions toward the future, nearly three fourths of all decisions were approached simply yes or no questions, cutting out middle ground options and narrowing the choices and potential alternatives available to managers and leadership. Bungay Stanier continues to quote the research from Nutt in Chip and Dan Heath’s book by saying that teenagers make decisions based on binaries at roughly equivalent levels.

 

To make better decisions in our lives we have to recognize that the world is not black and white. Someone is not either good or evil. Any given thing is never 100% perfect or terrible and we need to approach the world with much more nuance for real decisions, actions, and outcomes to make sense. If we fail to make broader considerations and look at more options, then we limit the possibilities around ourselves. Our decision making will be reduced if we chose to see the world and our next steps as either/or decisions and we won’t develop an accurate picture of the world around us. This is a challenging way to approach the world, and we sound less sure of ourselves, but we develop a more reasonable and compassionate view of other people and events in the world when we can live with more nuance and avoid the temptation to reduce everything to binaries.