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From three letters I received in response to today's essay, I should clarify that Guru David was not talking about life-or-death decisions. He created a dramatic metaphor to point out that I had already made a decision about how to proceed. That implied the options were less relevant to me than the time factor -- a point I hadn't noticed until I considered the metaphor.
David was saying, in effect, that actually I must have had a great deal of information, enough to be certain that delaying action was not an option! He was pointing out a common reasoning trap: If we say, "I can't decide but I must decide," that actually represents a decision.
Yet often we're not really looking for more information, as my initial reaction to the metaphor illustrates. We're looking for certainty that a path we choose will be the best one in the final wash. In the decades since that conversation with Guru David, I learned that often such certainty is found only in the heart.
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The following exchange relates to remarks I made in yesterday's post, which include a guest essay by "Liz."
I would have to agree that in the absence of useful amounts of data, we can only speculate. My concern is a slippery-slope problem: reasoned speculation becomes logical limits speculation (but are my logical limits the same as yours? probably not) which in turn too easily devolves into flights of fancy as ever-more improbable possibilities are explored. [...]"
I hope you won't find it rude but I will have to interrupt you because you're overlooking that there is another option: experimenting. The basic idea behind the experiment is that if there is no data you can figure a way to create some.
There are all kinds of experiments, I might add. Counterintelligence can be thought of as an experiment, for instance. You do something, then watch how the enemy responds. The response is data, which often translates to very useful information when viewed against other data.
However, my point was that in time-limited situations that demand a decision, we can neither afford to wait for reliable data or continue speculation.
Guru David once explained it all wonderfully. I told him that I was faced with the need for a decision yet didn't have enough information to decide between two courses of action. After laying out the situation I waited eagerly to hear which course he thought was best.
He answered, "Suppose you're being chased in unfamiliar territory by armed men who are trying to kill you. You come to a blind fork in the road. Which path should you take to save yourself?"
"I don't know," I wailed. "That's why I'm asking you."
"Let's go through this again. If the armed men catch you, they will kill you. So while you don't know whether one or both paths lead to escape or a dead end, is there anything you do know at that moment?"
The minutes ticked by while I sweated it out. Suddenly: "I know I will be dead if I stay at the fork in the road."
Guru David nodded. "So actually you have four choices, not two, if you must make a decision now."
More minutes. Slowly: "Okay, option A and option B: I don't know which one to take. Option C: I can decide to delay the decision in hopes of getting more information and try to deal with the consequences of the delay as they arise. Option D, I can decide to toss a coin about whether to pursue A or B, then deal with the consequences of my following A or B."
That last observation came out rather sullenly. So often we don't actually want advice. We want a fortune teller.
Perhaps sensing my disappointment David replied, "You'll be including yourself no matter which option you take."
At my blank stare he elaborated, "Everything you are, which includes everything you've learned up to this point in your life, and your character and intelligence."
In a perfect world we shouldn't have to make critical decisions in the face of a blind fork. Yet it can happen in the life of a person or a nation that we delay action so long that we are faced with great unknowns, no matter which course we take. At such times it is less the type of data and more the type of heart that illuminates the path.
Consider the widow in the movie, Places in the Heart. She knew so little about many things. She knew vastly what she needed to do. So much in life comes down not to irrational decisions but to places in the heart, which present a different order of knowledge than can be gained through data collection and experiment.
Is it a "higher" or "better" order of knowledge? It's an order that's always there to fall back on, when speculation leads in circles and there's no fresh data within shouting distance.
Now to continue with your reply:
"[...] Brainstorming can be quite useful, at times. But in the analytical process, a brainstorming mentality -- where uncritical acceptance of any possibility in order to not hinder the free flow of ideas -- is unwise. It is so easy, almost seductively so, to see the worst possibility as the most likely. The outrageous seems outrageously attractive, when the mundane, because it is mundane and so very ordinary, is far more likely. When police investigate a crime, especially a physical crime of violence against a person, the culprit is far more likely to be known to the victim than a total stranger who chose the victim at random.
Accepting the presence of danger in the mundane, of course, is uncomfortable; it means our lives are not as safe as we would like to think. It means, in fact, we have to think, all the time, and take fewer things for granted than we would like. "Home is where the heart is," goes the old saying. I submit it would be more fitting to say "home is where it's safe to let down our guard, to relax because we know there are no imminent threats." Home has smaller horizons than it used to, and I suspect they will shrink some more before they are able to safely grow again.
Donald Rumsfeld, in one of his more-often quoted pithy remarks, distinguished three types of information:
1. things that we know we know
2. things that we know we don't know
3. things that we don't know we don't know
To this list I would add a fourth (if indeed, he didn't -- it's been a while since I heard the news clip):
4. things that we know that ain't so
We need to beware speculation leading us into type 4, as it's the most dangerous of all.
Liz in USA"