Thought experiments

I was preparing for a job interview and I checked my CV to see, if I have all my bases covered. So I went through my skills and thought about examples from my experience to justify them. When I came to analytical thinking I stopped. This is something many people have in their CV, but do you really have this skill? A good interviewer will ask you about every skill you state and what that skill provides for the position you apply for. So I started thinking about analytical thinking.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind if you think about analytical thinking? The image that pops into my head is me sitting in math class trying to solve a math text problem. Well, that’s not far fetched.

Analytical thinking is in fact the capability of problem solving. This could be any problem you encounter in your life: make ends meet, try a new job or stay in the old job, buy a new car or not, which new laptop do I choose, what college to enroll in and for the more geeky ones: do I ask the girl out or not and how should I go about it?

So analytical thinking / problem solving involves the breaking down the problem you have in front of you into smaller bits, into smaller more handy pieces. Some problems you can’t solve in one step, they are too complex to positively see all the edges and then to make a good educated decision. There are people who can do that, very smart ones. So the breaking down helps.

Then, if you have smaller ones and there are still some nuances you can’t figure out (and you have a bit of imagination) you could do a thought experiment.

Thought experiments are used in all kinds of areas: economics, mathematics, history, behavioral science, philosophy and of course physics. Some of the most interesting and most adaptable thought experiments into an average every-day life are the one from philosophy. I try to give you some examples (I am no philosophy major, so If you have a comment on it, please comment and help to make things clearer, if I get them wrong):

Plato’s allegory of the cave

For those who don’t know it, here I just post the wiki-page to the allegory itself.

(Yes, I know that wiki is not the most competent scientific source, but it’s the easiest and fastest to find. It will do here.)

This thought experiment shows you, that the perception oplato_-_allegory_of_the_cavef reality is relative. Not everything that is true for you, is also true for others. You see things differently than others do. So if way to do something may work for you, doesn’t automatically mean it will work for others. Everybody who works with other people should think about this one. Especially good for teachers and people in manager positions. Try to put yourself into the shoes of the other one. If you try to explain or teach something to another person, be clear about one thing: his understanding of things, isn’t necessarily the same as yours. So before you start, talk to him, get to know his thinking process. Adapt your presentation, argumentation to his way of understanding. Makes it easier for both of you.

And everything that works for you, necessarily works for others too. This can be applied in your own home and family as well as for global political landscapes. When you force other people into the same system you are in (and feel good in), then the outcome can be very different from what you, with your view of the world, would expect.

The prisoner’s dilemma

The dilemma: This is a paradox in decision analysis in which two individuals acting in their own self-interest pursue a course of action that does not result in the ideal outcome. The typical prisoner’s dilemma is set up in such a way that both parties choose to protect themselves at the expense of the other participant. As a result of following a purely logical thought process, both participants find themselves in a worse state than if they had cooperated with each other in the decision-making process.

This dilemma can actually be quite complex and many different versions exist, but I try to make a simple example: Rector Skinner catches Bart and Milhouse doing graphity on the parking areas wall. Rector Skinner takes both boys into separate rooms and asks both of them the same question: Who’s idea was it?

Bart and Milhouse.jpgHe tells Bart and Milhouse that they have two choices: either confess or remain silent. If one of them confesses and the other boy stays silent, he will let the confessing one go unpunished (yes: free)and see to it that the other one gets 864 days of detention (exact amount of the number of days of detention isn’t important at all). This works both ways. If both confess, he will have the victory of his life and give both of them 623 days of detention. This is less, than if only one confesses. If both stay silent, he will still give them each 312 days of detention.

What do you think will happen? What’s the best outcome? Of course your tempted to
confess, but what if the other one confesses too? What would you do?

The beetle in the box – by Ludwig Wittgenstein

This is also called the Private Language Argument and it challenges the way we look at introspection and how it informs the language we use to describe sensations.

Japanese Puzzle Box - 2.5 Sun 5 Moves (Bottom).jpgWittgenstein asks us to imagine a group of individuals, each of whom has a box containing something called a “beetle.” No one can see into anyone else’s box. Everyone is asked to describe their beetle — but each person only knows their own beetle. But each person can only talk about their own beetle, as there might be different things in each person’s box. Consequently, Wittgenstein says the subsequent descriptions cannot have a part in the “language game.” Over time, people will talk about what is in their boxes, but the word “beetle” simply ends up meaning “that thing that is in a person’s box.”

This experiment wants to show the problem of language. How we produce and perceive language.

Usually language works in a system, like a two sided coin: on one side you have the picture, the idea of a thing and on the other side you have the word for it. That word is only given through social “convention”. Everybody agrees, that a thing you can sit on, that has 4 legs and supports your back is a chair. This is the convention. But if the convention would be to call that 4 legged thing a banana and everybody would grow up learning to call it banana, nobody would lose any thought about it.

In Wittgensteins beetle experiment we have the problem that the convention might not be the same for everybody. We don’t know what the actual thing in the other persons box is. And if we just start to use the word / expression of the beetle for something, how can we know exactly if me and the other person really mean the same thing when we talk about the beetle? This paradox can be somewhat connected to the Cave allegory. Nobody knows exactly how the other person is perceiving reality. We can try to get consensus or conventions about things, but surely for a 100% we will never know how the mind of the other works.

Alright, these are some things to think about. Feel free to comment or add stuff. I am also very interested in the comments if you don’t agree. You can also post more of these experiments and explain how they could be applied or help you with your everyday life.

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