The previous articles in this series looked at mental models and ways of making sense of problems. A recurrent theme in those articles was that using the wrong model can lead to disastrous outcomes.
This raises the question of how to choose the right model to make sense of a problem. In this article, I’ll look at the issues involved in answering this question, and then look at some practical solutions.
The previous articles in this series looked at how everyday entities such as a cup of coffee or a Lego pack can provide templates for thinking about other subjects, particularly abstract concepts such as justice, and entities that we can’t directly observe with human senses, such as electricity.
The previous articles examined templates for handling entities that stay where they’re put. With Lego blocks or a cup of coffee, once you’ve put them into a configuration, they stay in that configuration unless something else disturbs them. The Lego blocks stay in the shape you assembled them in; the cup of coffee remains a cup of coffee.
However, not all entities behave that way. In this article, I’ll examine systems theory, and its implications for entities that don’t stay where they’re put, but instead behave in ways that are often unexpected and counter-intuitive. I’ll use Meccano as a worked example.
In politics and religion, a common accusation is that someone is being hypocritical or inconsistent. The previous article in this series looked at how this can arise from the irregular adjective approach to other groups; for example, “Our soldiers are brave” versus “Their soldiers are fanatical” when describing otherwise identical actions.
Often, though, inconsistency is an almost inevitable consequence of dealing with complexity. Mainstream political movements, like organised religions, spend a lot of time and effort in identifying and resolving inherent contradictions within their worldview. This process takes a lot of time and effort because of the sheer number of possible combinations of beliefs within any mature worldview.
In this article, I’ll work through the implications of this simple but extremely significant issue.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I have an awed respect for the ability of Ancient Greek philosophers to spot a really important point, and to then produce an extremely plausible but only partially correct explanation, sending everyone else off in the wrong direction for the next couple of thousand years.
Today’s article is about one of those points, where the Ancient Greeks didn’t actually get anything wrong, but where they laid out a concept that’s only part of the story. It involves a concept that can be very useful for making sense of consumer preferences and life choices, namely the difference between intrinsic properties in the broad sense, and extrinsic properties in the broad sense.
Here’s an example. The image below shows a pair of Zippo lighters. One of them is worth a few dollars; the other is worth tens of thousands of dollars, even though it’s physically indistinguishable from the first one. Why the difference? The answer is below…
There is a general consensus that problem solving skills are a Good Thing. There’s general consensus that the education system needs to encourage them.
So far, so good. The consensus doesn’t go much further, though. It rapidly bogs down in long-running arguments about what problem solving skills actually are, and about how to measure them, and how to teach them. Those arguments follow a familiar pattern, with disputes about the True Definition, and invocations of Great Thinkers such as Socrates and Plato and Wittgenstein. The fact that those arguments have been rumbling on inconclusively for decades is a strong hint that maybe they’ve been framed in the wrong way from the outset, and that framing them differently might be a good idea.
That’s what this article is about. It describes more productive ways of handling these concepts, with particular reference to definitions, education theory and educational practice. It’s based on what happened the field of Artificial Intelligence tried to produce software that would find creative solutions to real world problems. It’s a story of how re-framing the issue with subtly but profoundly different concepts gave a powerful, efficient set of solutions that changed the world. It’s a story that most people have never heard of. It’s also a story that should transform the way that we tackle this aspect of education.
“It’s really quite simple…”“Viejos mineros asturianos” by Jomafemag – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons (link at end of this article)