Consequences and thought experiments

I

More times than we’d like, formal plans emerge as a by-product of a struggle between contingency and “consequences.” In these cases, people confront not so much discrete events with causal consequences but rather contingencies associated with aftermaths, for neither of which there is much causal understanding.

But, oh, never forget those pressures to come down on the side of consequences, however asymmetrical or outsized, all the time!

II

The ability to identify consequences is core to many professions, including my own, policy analysis. Here in the States it is the spawn of pragmatism (i.e., consequences matter) and rationalism (i.e., the steps in an analysis extend from define the problem through identify the options to predict the consequences of each and chose among the best in terms of predicted outcomes). The difficulty, of course, is predicting consequences.

Thought experiments, in contrast, can challenge a problem definition in ways that offer new insights, options and/or problem definitions. A thought experiment searches out other kinds of “consequences,” perhaps more tractable to the cognitive and affective limits of analysis.

This possibility of tractability is why I hate “formal experiments,” i.e., they succeed when they fail (as in “fail to reject the null hypothesis”). For: What if some failed hypotheses were good-enough futures anyway?

III

In my view then, the attempt to identify consequences can be analogous to trying to find the right word.

Many people assume that writing is all about finding the right word. On the other hand, when asked how he seemed always able to choose the right phrase, the poet responded: “Dear Mr. Stein, I do not choose the right word. I get rid of the wrong one. Period. Sincerely yours, A.E. Houseman.” T.S. Eliot makes the same point, with an important proviso: “It is supposed that the poet, if anybody, is one engaged in perpetual pursuit of the right word. My own experience would be more accurately described as the attempt to avoid the wrong word. For as to the right word, I am not convinced it is anything but a mirage.”

A thought experiment, in other words, is to search out wrong words, the mirage.

Examples fly to mind. Consider some descriptions for the self-correcting, self-regulating, self-healing efficacy of complex adaptive systems. If fireflies can do it, why can’t humans? If fireflies can self-organize and flash in unison, why can’t humans better coordinate and synchronize their behavior? Presumably so too: If earthworms can do it, why can’t humans? If earthworms can move tons of soil, why can’t humans do the same?

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