30 April 2009

Questions, knowing, risk: thirteen thoughts about thinking

The Pohangina Valley from No. 2 Line


The grader's been up No. 2 Line in the last day or so, leaving the road covered in small rocks, mounds and long ridges of gravel, and furrows full of soft, silty soil—a nightmare on which to bike. The knobbly tyres slip and skid; once, the rear wheel shoots sideways on a sloping ridge of gravel and I only just manage to stay upright. I feel as if I'm pedalling uphill through sand, but I grind on, slow and dogged, glad I've no intention of setting personal records. All I want is to feel my legs and lungs working the way they’re supposed to work, not the way they’ve been hardly working most of the day.
So I pedal on up the road, trying to pick the hard surfaces, the tracks where the grader’s giant tyres have compressed the dirt into a reasonable surface mostly free from loose stones. Trying to pick a safe line. Much like life, I suppose—perhaps too much like my own.
How much risk is reasonable?


As I begin to heat up I pull down the front zip of my jacket to let the wind cool me—true, natural, air conditioning. The jacket is a generous gift; My hair looks mental, she saysNew Zealand made, and an item too expensive for me to have bought. If I hadn’t been the lucky recipient I suppose I’d have continued to use one of my other jackets or perhaps bought something cheaper — and, inevitably, made in China.
The thought prompts me to think about the ethics of buying Chinese made goods. Some say it puts workers here in Aotearoa out of jobs (they’re correct); others argue it provides Chinese workers with jobs (they’re correct too). Some say it perpetuates what amounts to slavery and oppression in China (a convincing argument); others say those Chinese workers would be worse off without the jobs (similarly convincing). The arguments for and against buying Chinese made goods go on.
It’s like that with many questions. Should we allow private companies to run our prisons? Should all New Zealanders be taxed to pay for Auckland’s transport system to be fixed? Is it wrong to eat meat? Is there a god?
Questions like these—so-called “closed” questions because they can be answered (and usually are) with a simple “yes” or “no”—nearly always develop into arguments between the yeas and the nays, each camp attempting to demonstrate the strength of its own position and the error of the other's. At its most constructive, this kind of to-and-fro supposedly delivers a better understanding of what's being discussed; it (again supposedly) leads to one or both sides modifying their original positions or perhaps even abandoning an untenable position; in a related view, it homes in on “the truth”—the best known, most formal example being the legal system where prosecution and defence lawyers attempt to convince a jury that the accused is or is not guilty.
Do these apparently incisive questions, does this impressively methodical way of arguing, really deliver such wonderful results? I have my doubts. Convincing someone to change an opinion—a rare outcome, in any case—too often seems less a matter of truth and logic than of rhetorical skill and facility with the selection of facts. Consider this: if you were on trial, which lawyer would you prefer as your defence counsel: a superb orator or one who speaks in a dry monotone of incomplete sentences punctuated by ums and ahs?


I negotiate another steeply cambered, gravel-slippery corner and change up a couple of gears as the road levels out. I think of the road ahead, the steep climb; I feel like an old dog confronted by happy kids. Perhaps I’ve had enough exercise already. Should I turn around at the dam and skip that long uphill grind? Will I be a wuss if I don’t struggle all the way to the end of the road?


But questions can be asked in ways that encourage exploration rather than conflict. How might we run our prisons most effectively and efficiently? What systems of funding would be most equitable and efficient for ameliorating Auckland’s transport problems? What are the consequences of eating meat—or believing in a god? Questions framed like this often have no set answers, which is why they’re called “open-ended”.Dawn moon over the Pohangina Valley They can lead in all kinds of directions and beyond anything you might have guessed. Don’t ask questions like these unless you have time to listen. And time to think. Lots of time.
How far should I bike today?


Questions don’t have to involve two or more people, nor does the kind of dialectical conflict—I mean “argument”—I’ve described above. We do it in our heads, all the time. But, if we’re conscious of mentally debating a question, it’s often (I suspect) less a rational exercise than a rationalisation enabling us to choose the conclusion we always wanted, whether we knew it or not.
“That new camera isn’t really necessary,” Reasonable Pete says. “Your old camera still does the job”.
“Yes,” Evil Pete says, “yes, but think of the photos you could get in really dim light”.
And there it is: “Yes but”—the defining phrase of the tendentious.
“Yes, but what are you going to do with those photos?” Reasonable Pete counters. “You can still get them with the old camera—they’ll just have a bit more noise”.
“Yes but,” Evil Pete says, “yes, but you’ll be able to crop more heavily with all those additional megapixels. Go on, you know you want it”.
And you’d get it if you thought you wouldn’t have to buy food and pay rent and get the car and your teeth fixed and never wanted to visit India again.


Rain, the forecasters say; rain by tomorrow afternoon, but the sky over the western hills burns the bellies of the clouds crimson and orange. Up No. 2 Line a few hours ago the light seemed to have been sucked from the land and sky, leaving the world in a kind of apocalyptic gloom. Was it a glimpse of the future, rushing towards us while we quibble and bicker? One feels an overwhelming urge to say something profound about evenings like this but their defining characteristic is their power to insist there have been no other evenings like this: this is the moment the world changes forever.


How do you assess an argument; how do you know the convincing argument you’ve just heard really is as convincing as it sounds? Even if it’s logically flawless, the conclusion’s only true if all the premises are also true. What worries me is the frequencyJacket, inhabited with which I hear a convincing argument—logically correct, with believable premises—only to learn later that additional information would turn the conclusion upside down. Making the wearing of bicycle helmets compulsory seems like a good way to reduce the costs associated with bicycle accidents: costs like hospital treatment, rehabilitation and time off work. Then someone points out that because such a law would discourage cycling, it would actually be more costly—perhaps greatly so. In this example, the researcher and the proponents of compulsory helmet-wearing continue to argue. Who's right? How do you decide?
And what about your own logic? You explore an idea and arrive at a surprising—perhaps unpalatable—conclusion. How do you decide whether the conclusion is right or your reasoning wrong?


The air's alive with aphids, the tiny insects spattering the arms and shoulders of the jacket and tapping against my sunglasses, which are needed not because of the sun—there's none to be seen—but because I don't want corneas studded with small corpses, don't want eyeballs like pomanders. The tiny insects embed themselves in my eyebrows and beard as I bike, tight-lipped, breathing as much as possible through my nose to avoid inhaling insects. From experience, I know aphids in the alveoli are not to be recommended.


Rain, the forecasters say; fine, say the crimson clouds. Who will be right: the forecasters or the old wives?


Emma runs back to the house next door, yelling at me to wait. She returns soon after, clutching a small book which we inspect for words she might recognise while we sit swinging our legs in the late afternoon sun on the edge of the verandah.Autumn leaves and the daylight moon The sheep ignore us from a comfortable distance as they crop the grass. Her three-year-old brother yells and waves from beside the ute in the driveway, but evidently his mum and dad and the packing to leave are more interesting than the sedentary inspection of books, or his sister, or me. Emma's mum calls to her to come and pack her things. Emma rolls her eyes.
“Oh, no”, she says, in a perfectly adult-inflected, exasperated voice, and turns back to the book.
The sun burns, hot and glaring, through brown and gold leaves on the far side of the paddock at the terrace edge; it stretches over the oblivious sheep and directly onto the man and the small girl sitting on the edge of the verandah, swinging their legs and searching for words.


What to do, what to do? What should I think about buying cheap Chinese goods? What should I think of the idea that economic salvation lies in increasing consumption? Intuition tells me to buy less, thus avoiding the first question and denying the answer implicit in the second—but intuition, the rationalists tell us, is not to be trusted. On the other hand, logical analysis seems to mire us in never-ending argument. Perhaps these difficulties are inescapable? However, while the retreat into scepticism—the idea that we can know nothing—might have been a solution for Pyrrho, for me it seems utterly impractical (besides, I remain Evening on the Ngamoko Range, looking east over the Pohangina headwaterssceptical whether Pyrrho was, in his day-to-day life, as sceptical as the anecdotes claim). In practice, in real life, questions suffuse our lives and, put simply, for a great many questions, we must decide.
So, what to do? Two things, perhaps. First—and this should be obvious to the point of being trivial— answering a question often doesn't matter. Not all questions are important enough to agonise over. The consequences of choosing the wrong flavour of icecream are never likely to be serious (parents of small children might disagree), but the consequences of switching jobs can be life-changing. Then, if any of the possible answers do strike you as important, ask yourself, “How likely is that particular outcome?”.
Risk: consequence, weighted by likelihood.


Second, think again about the question. What is it really asking? What problem does it try to solve? Too many questions are like that proverbial ladder leaning against the wrong wall: at the top you see the view but find you're looking the wrong way, or gazing into someone's rubbish dump. So, the second, and more important, suggestion.
If you think a question's worth thinking about in any depth, ask yourself the most important question: “Is this the right question?”.


This evening I can't decide how far to go, so I keep pedalling. Eventually I reach the end of the Line, where the world out west falls away into a blue, darkening haze of valleys and hills. Up north the mountains encircling the Oroua headwaters loom on the horizon, grey and tinged with blue and older than anything alive. Who knows what might have lived there, what strange animals trod forgotten forests? But one thing remains certain: those mountains will remain when we have gone; they will remain when the world has erased us; they will remain when all our questions, answered or not, have been forgotten.
Poplars above Te Awaoteatua Stream

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. The Pohangina Valley and northern Manawatu hill country, looking north-west from No. 2 Line.
2. The bestower of jackets, on Kapiti Island last Sunday.
3. Harvest. Not mine.
4. Dawn, Good Friday, from the verandah.
5. The jacket.
6. Robinia leaves and the autumn moon half gone.
7. Evening on the Ngamoko Range.
8. Autumn poplars above Te Awaoteatua Stream.

Photos and words © 2009 Pete McGregor