Thursday, September 06, 2007

prelude/intro to "the summer of sharks and beaches"

In the middle of the twentieth century, philosophers often used fiction writing as a tool to explore epistemological questions. The novel became the vehicle for Camus and Sartre to deliver an existentialist platform. In many plays, (such as "Waiting for Godot" as well works by Sartre and others) various themes were explored by using appropriate plots and characters to work through logical constructions in an entertaining manner. This approach is not as popular today, or at least is not widely accepted academically, and thus, is not as well known by readers exploring contemporary issues in philosophy. The use of fiction allowed past writers to entertain themselves and their readers, likely leading to better penetration of their ideas to a broad audience.

In today's publishing market, a plethora of non-fiction titles dominates the landscape of empirical knowledge acquisition. Unfortunately, the sheer volume of these titles and the limited time nature of their relevance, makes it impossible to keep up with anything but the most specific sub-sub-specialty areas of our interests. Many theoretical arguments in popular non-fiction are based on current events and are written by policy experts, journalists, or scientists within the specific topic field. The advantage of this approach is that the average reader does have ACCESS to more information than ever. However, the disadvantage of this is that access may not translate well to knowledge or individual growth for the reader. The reader likely can not keep up with all of the titles, can not explore titles in all fields and is accessing data and hypotheses that may already be irrelevant at the time of publication or reading.

The merit of literary fiction, on the other hand, rests in the timeless lessons delivered to us through the character development and plot. Through fiction, a reader can construct a broad empirical foundation of knowledge acquisition. In other words, they can learn how to think and how to realize their own perspective of the world and of information. By exploring the "theory of knowledge" outlined in a story by a fiction author, the reader might, if astute and appropriately reflective, construct their own "theory of knowledge" that they can use in all areas and topics they encounter.

In this manuscript, I have attempted to return to fiction as a tool to convey an underlying philosophical construct. My hope is that, at the very least, this approach will deliver and engaging story with characters that are emotionally significant for the reader. At best, this approach will help me work though an idea I continue to develop through my own reading, observations, research, and experiences. This work is not meant to introduce an overarching, perfectly reasoned, philosophical theory that has been applied to any serious academic rigor or testing. Instead, this work is meant to take advantage of a tool (fiction) to scratch the surface of an important idea. In other words, nothing earth shattering is likely to be found in these pages and the way you view the world may not drastically change. However, I do hope to introduce a hypothesis, a nagging little observation, into your life through the development of my characters and the construction of the subsequent story.

More specifically, the goal of this manuscript - this story - is to explore the viability of using fiction writing to discuss probability, randomness, and how we use information to make decisions. As alluded to earlier, this topic has been explored recently in popular non-fiction. Malcolm Gladwell's work (Blink and The Tipping Point) brings difficult mathematical concepts regarding probability and decision to a broader audience by using a broader language in his writing. Furthermore, Steven Levitt (Freakonomics) has also been able to write about statistical patterns in a very appealing way. However, while these authors have indeed done an excellent job exploring those topics, they are, nevertheless, non-fiction. It is my belief that this genre has the limits outlined above and that an approach to those topics through literary fiction is needed to provide an appropriate complement. Only through this approach of duality can we hope to disseminate important ideas to all interested readers.

This is not to say that my ideas are identical to those in earlier non-fiction works. They are similar but focused on a different theme. Here, in this story, my goal is to explore how we acquire knowledge, how that knowledge affects our decision making process, and whether or not increased knowledge leads to better decision making. Is it knowledge, timing, or experience that leads to the best outcomes in our own life? Can we retrospectively evaluate this conflict by looking at our past decisions, or are we too biased by likely overstating the positive outcomes with a more clear picture in our minds eye regarding what went into those decisions?

My basic premise is that the most important decisions we make will be made fairly quickly - in a small window of time. Maybe we do nothing - we let the window pass by due to lack of preparation or readiness. This is a decision in itself. How do we evaluate the unknown and how do we rank and weigh the available information we do have? Does that information even help? How much of the outcome is simply chance and given the same scenario again, who is isn't to say that the same decision would have a negative result? How do we know the result that we think is positive, is successful, doesn't actually represent the wrong decision between two options - would the other choice have turned out better?

In addition, it may seem that our options, our choices, are infinite. But they are not. While the decision trees are, indeed, close to infinite and likely distributed continuously, the individual decisions we make themselves are actually quite confined within a given set of choices. This set of choices might actually be where our past work of knowledge acquisition and idea development comes into play. In other words, our experiences and education might not help us actually make the right decision given a set of choices. Instead, our experiences and education might be responsible for something even more a priori and important - the underlying set of choices from which he have to select. Thus, I argue in this story, that every time we make a choice, we are - at some level - aware of the elements of our choice set and have purposely (at least through proximate mechanisms) acted to construct that choice set. However, it is unlikely that, given our limits to predict the future, we have any ability to pull the "best" element out of that set in terms of having a positive impact on our remaining life.

Certainly these are themes that could be explored rigorously in an academic mathematical or statistical program. What is probably obvious, however, is that I am neither a mathematician or a statistician. Instead, I am a soon to be physician-anthropologist and, thus, I have chosen to approach these problems using a tool I appreciate and find most applicable to my own personal and professional life - a novel.

This manuscript is a work in progress - while all of the chapters have been drafted, much work still remains in integrating the appropriate questions raised here in this introduction. Furthermore, much editing still remains to improve the writing, plot and dialog. My plan is to intermittently use my blog to work through those areas of the manuscript where I continue to have difficulty.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a decent book about medical decision-making.

How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman

His premise is that misdiagnosis is usually caused by errors of cognition, not a lack of knowledge.
These errors occur because different modes of thinking are necessary for various clinical problems, and each mode has its strengths and potential pitfalls. He concludes that cognitive awareness minimizes medical errors, and that rainbows will shoot out of your fingertips once you master this technique.

He tends to beat his point to death (especially the part about the rainbows), but there are some nice concepts. I have a copy of the audiobook if you're interested.