How I Will Probably Reduce My Belt Size through Learning and Action (or, Cause and Effect for Fun and for Profit)

This paper is not really about reducing my belt size, although I will come to that eventually so that the reader will not accuse me of false advertising.  Instead, I want to talk about some of my observations regarding how earthlings think.  Specifically, how humans learn things, the trap of binary, “either/or thinking,” and how the introduction of probability gets us closer to the truth.  I’ll conclude with a sensible example of converting the knowledge we gain into action.   This is not really a research paper.  These are just observations I have made through a process of introspection, while under the influence of studies in probability and systems theory.  Caveat lector.

While it may seem obvious, I would like to start by saying that our learning process changes over time.  I don’t mean that the things we learn necessarily change over time – in fact we may learn the same things many times, in different shades.  No, I mean that the process we go through to gain knowledge changes as we grow from childhood into adulthood and beyond.

Our first lessons are very simple, and take the form of one-to-one correspondences.  For example: “When I touch something hot with my finger, it burns my finger.”  This important lesson is usually followed up with related empirical verification: “When I touch something hot with my toe, it also burns my toe (similar to how it did with my finger.)”  In this way, the one-to-one correspondence is expanded to the generalization that touching hot things always results in pain to whatever part of the body does the touching.

We live in the world of modus ponens for some time.  All lessons take the form “if p then q.”  When we learn to distinguish ourselves from other beings, we expand our lessons to include them in various ways: “If daddy touches something hot, he gets burned.”  “If the cat touches something hot, the cat feels pain, too.”  “If the newspaper touches the fire, the newspaper burns.”  All variations on the same example – that of getting burned.  All of these are single correspondence, and the simplest form of inference.

Of course the negation of the lesson is easily applied: “If I do not touch the hot thing, I will not get burnt.”  This step seems to be automatic, as it seems to be the primary learning tool of the very young (and sometimes the not so young) as we hear them say, “Well, let’s not be doing that again!”

Somewhere along the line, however, a deeper inference is discovered: “My finger was not burned, therefore the object I touched must not be hot.”  The development of this logical construct, modus tolens (“if not q then not p”) comes to us easily, and gives us another tool to use later in logical argument. For example:

P1           If you love me then you will remember my birthday.

P2           You did not remember my birthday.

C             Therefore, you do not love me.

This is a precursor to a breakthrough moment, which I think nearly everyone achieves.  Our childhood inferences describe simple connections between two facts, with the intuitive identification of causal relation.  This provides a pretty good working model of the world, in which individual objects exist, and these in turn can act upon other individual objects.  However, we eventually discover that this view of the world is wrong.

The breakthrough happens when we realize the existence of probability.  “The stove might be hot.  If I touch the stove, I might get burned.”  This breakthrough opens the floodgates to new possibilities: Weather, cats and coin-flips are all unpredictable.  People can surprise you.  Even your own preferences can vary from day to day (“I liked this soup yesterday afternoon, but this morning it doesn’t impress me.”)  Some things that seem very simple and direct actually have an element of chance, like the local store closing due to a family emergency, or trying to make a phone call at the exact moment all lines were in use.

This dawns a whole new age of thinking, characterized by sentences which have forms like “I probably shouldn’t have a second dessert” or “There might be a party after the game” or “I don’t know if I want to go out with him.”  In fact, the probabilistic world quickly replaces the childhood world with its binary truths.  “Never say never” becomes the call sign, and we admit that – although we don’t really believe in UFOs – there is always a small chance…

At this point, there are related inferences that we learn to assimilate.  For example, I might get an uncomfortable burning from a stove that was off, then realize the sun had been beating on the surface through the window.  In this case, I’ve discovered multiple causation.  Hopefully, I can turn this around, to realize the fallacy of this argument:

P1           If you love me then you will remember my birthday.

P2           You remembered my birthday.

C             Therefore, you love me!

Clearly, there could have been another cause for the remembered birthday (i.e. Facebook notification, friends, happened across a card, etc.)  Thus we have a world with probability, multiple possible causes, and, of course, multiple effects.  Although it may be true that many people think in these terms, this probabilistic view of the world is also wrong.

Perhaps I am being too harsh.  Let me soften the blow a bit: One-to-one correspondence was not entirely wrong.  It was correct in a simplistic way, but very limited.  A great many important ideas cannot be expressed, nor even understood, with the limited inference of if-then-else.  The introduction of probability improves that view, but is – sadly – limited in exactly the same way.  I believe there is a key factor to consider, and the next step in the progression of learning.

The key, as I see it, is the idea that all things are intertwined.  Yes, this statement is oft repeated, in many, many ways.  There are well known eastern philosophies which take this a step further, saying that “all is one.”  Leaving the metaphysical aspects aside, we can say that – in a very practical way – everything we will ever see or do is part of a single network of cause and effect.  Newton’s third law tells us that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  I’m afraid that, while Newtonian physics are certainly very useful, mired in the simple world of one-to-one relations.  Schrödinger improved upon Newton by introducing probability.  Even so, the material world of physics has yet to catch up with the reality of human experience.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy took the next step, with his introduction of System Theory: “Biologically, life is not maintenance or restoration of equilibrium but is essentially maintenance of disequilibria…”  We can visualize each of our lives as a node in an immense network, like a spider’s web.  We are always in a state of tension, with forces moving in all directions.  Any motion in one vector initiates motion in all other vectors.  Since one thread leads to another, and all are interconnected, it is the case that any motion on any vector effects all other vectors – including itself – through the web.

When I say that I burn my finger on the stove, it can be inferred that this event is a part of a long chain of events, which in turn begins a long chain of new events.  That should be clear enough, and you are probably thinking something like “Yeah, so what?  The simplified view is just a shortcut, such that we don’t have to include discussion of the entire universe in the mention of every burned finger.”  For simple events, that may be true.

However, life is not always simple.  As an example, let’s consider my tummy.  Apart from the interesting image of a group of people contemplating one navel, I actually mean it literally: I am a bit fat.  Many of us are in the same boat.  We would like to trim down a bit – either to look good at the beach, attract a good-looking mate, fit into that old wedding dress, or simply to be healthier.  In any event, I want to lose the muffin top.  So what can I do?   Obviously, this question is not answered by one-to-one correspondence: “If I do not eat that donut, I will not be fat.” Anyone who has attempted this feat has probably learned that it is not that simple.  There is not a single cause and effect relationship.

Adding probability and multiple causation helps:  If I stop eating donuts, and exercise 3 times a week, I will probably lose weight.”  This is better, but I believe that it is more complicated than that.  Sure, it is true that we could probably rephrase that sentence to arrive at something that would seem to work.  However, I submit that any proposition addressing the issue of losing weight, phrased in the form “If ______, then not fat” will leave gaps which can be exploited by the rules of probability and human nature.

This condition has a variety of reasons for it, such as:

  • Not every rule applies in all cases
  • Other factors effect this issue
  • I may not stick to a diet
  • My metabolism might change
  • I could transfer donut cravings to chocolate

The list goes on and on, and can be expanded indefinitely.  We are constructed of events in tension, pulling and pushing in a zillion directions at once.  Any attempt to one of these nodes effects the entire web.  This is not, as it might sound, so much a process of amplification as it is a process of dispersing.  Efforts which are applied to an individual node are conducted to other nodes, it is true, and we often see effects reaching further than expected.  However, at the same time the effects can be attenuated by distance, or diluted by the actions of other nodes.  My belly stays round because my limited actions are lost in the network.

So how do we overcome this limitation, such that we can take meaningful action?  If you hadn’t noticed, I’ve shifted the topic from learning to action.  This was no accident.  While the conclusions I am approaching are about action, the activity to be employed is a process of learning.  The if-then, probabilistic, interconnected world is not good enough.  What I need is an evolutionary world – a world of incremental change.

My strategy to drop a waist size in this world might look like this: I will avoid donuts.  I will arrange my routine such that donuts will be inconvenient.  Instead, I will satisfy my sweet tooth with expensive Danish pastries (and eat fewer, because of the expense.)  I will make new friends who do not like donuts, and learn about their point of view.  I will acquire comfortable walking shoes, and save money by parking several blocks from the office.  Maybe I can meet new people on my walk to work, maybe find a new coffee shop.  Instead of using butter and sour cream on my potato, I will try it with one or the other.  Perhaps over time I can eliminate both altogether.  I will look for ways to increase my blood flow and metabolic rate – using stairs instead of elevators, carrying firewood by hand instead of the wheelbarrow.  I will disassociate from those who are lazy, and have bad eating habits.  I will drink more water.

Eventually, I will measure my waist – but not right away.  The fat does not matter right now, because what I am doing is not losing weight.  First, I am changing the web.  I am altering my immediate vectors, and waiting for them to stabilize.  Once new habits are formed, then it is time to look at the effects.  And we know the probable effects of good habits – I will slim down.  Maybe a little, maybe a lot – it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter how much movement there is, as long as it is in the correct direction.  The local changes to the system are all that matters.  If the system remains unchanged, so does the local node (my belt size, in this example.)  We can push a node around all we want, but it is likely to return to the same place unless the network changes.

To state this another way: The act of executing change is a learning process.  We make adjustments to things that relate to our desired effect, then learn the result.  Rinse, repeat.