04 December 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Do things change if we change?

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing a aptly introduced question for our times: Do things change if we change?

These rather interesting times are full of change: change is being imposed on us, some change we have been longing for to happen and some changes are as far away as we are from paradise. Having said that, change is possible. But I am afraid not enough for me to write a full essay, I only had time to string together a few ideas I feel are the basis of this theme.

Take care and see you Sunday,



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[Just a few ideas; could not find the time to write an essay. Sorry]

Do things change if we change?

This question is a good candidate for a hard or soft interpretation. It is, however, not a yes-or-no type of question, and when we put it through the soft interpretation grinder we have to rephrase the question.

The hard interpretation has a yes for an answer: if we change things do change. But this is rather an analytical truth if we accept the principles of causality and if we accept that we are also part of the causal chain of events. Of course, some might want us to believe that we are not part of any causal chain and that somehow we are different from the rest of the universe. Unfortunately, we are part of the mythical billiard table as much as the red and white balls; we are all subject to the principles of causality. But it is this catch-all causality that makes the question rather harmless, i.e. there is no yes-or-no type of answer to it. If we, therefore, accept the hard interpretation, the answer must surely be an analytical truth and it is not worth much to anyone.

To arrive at the soft interpretation, we have to rephrase the question, maybe into something like this: Do things change for the better if we try and change for the better? A bit of a mouthful, but basically, I am asking, whether our life will improve if we try to improve. It is also a difficult question to answer, because we are basically trying to predict the future. But not just predict the future, predict whether we can create a causal chain of physical events that will bring about what we want to be better. And, at the same time, and this is the joker in the pack, create a causal chain that will also make other people around us do things for us that will help us bring about what we want improved.

On the one hand, therefore, we want to change the physical world around us (have a bigger house, eat better food etc) and also change the behaviour of the people around us if not totally find new people to be part of our circle ( a better boss, a romantic girlfriend, a responsible child etc). But our life is akin to what Charles Dickens makes Mr Micawber say in David Copperfield, "if a man had twenty pounds a year, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy; but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched.” (Financial crisis: We should turn to Charles Dickens in hard times, not just Little Dorrit, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2008/10/21/bodickens121.xml, The Telegraph)

But we also know that to go from one level of equilibrium, if not disquiet, to a higher state, we need to spend more energy and therefore create more entropy.(Thermodynamics). Our happiness, or things changing to the better, means that others have to cooperate with us and this is a cost for them. Of course they might also profit from the deal, but, nevertheless, they have to do something for us in order that we achieve our better state of being. Finding the love of our life also means that that person must start loving us; working for a better boss means that the new boss must have a nice and friendly personality when dealing with us; getting more money for our property means that someone is willing to pay more than maybe what they initially wanted to.

I shall assume that changing other people to get them to help us become better is more difficult than say changing the topology of our plot of land to build our new bungalow. Changing people’s opinion or behaviour in order to help us takes us into the domain of communication: you will remember that communication is to manipulate others (R Dawkins). If we want to tell someone that we love them and that they ought to love us back, we have to communicate with them in such a way that they will indeed, love back and so on and so forth.

A very efficient way of doing this is, changing someone’s behaviour, would be to show them that what we are asking them to do is also rewarding for them. As I indicated in the previous paragraph, cooperating with us might also be profitable for the other person as much as it is for us, even if we accept that they have to do something for us. In other words, “why should they help us?” is a valid question to ask whether the other party is going to benefit from the deal or not.

Changing others so that they can help us achieve better things is only one small part of the programme. Two other issues that will certainly concern us are our believes and knowledge and what I shall call, doing what has to be done.

It is one thing to want to change our life, and believing that route X or route Y will take us there. But our state of knowledge and our believes play an important part in how we change, what we change into and whether things change to the better. Imagine believing that a prospective boss is interested in golf, but in fact he or she is interested in clay pigeon shooting. we are not going to change that person much by talking about golf. Many other factors can be influenced by what we know or believe in: we cannot change lead into gold, nor stop a fatal disease. Maybe people, in this respect are much easier to change: many studies have shown that most women prefer tall men to short men or that men prefer thin women, but as we know many women are happy with short men and many men are happy with a normal woman.

Believing the right thing and know the right sort of knowledge does not diminish the need for us to do what has to be done. Knowing that we have to be committed to someone we love is not enough since we need to do the right thing that would make our prospective partner love us back. And sometimes there is nothing that we (not anyone) can do to change their mind. The fact that many people are successful in doing what has to be done does not take away the complexity of the task.

To conclude, we are neither impotent to causing change nor immune to any change. The trick is to hit the red ball and save a six pence both at the same time.

Take care


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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Do things change if we change?

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