Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Behind the 42

Behind the 42 - 2

In this post I'll expose my thinking framework, the method if you might call it, that allows me to set up a question network.

Most often when I see, read, hear, feel or write something immediate questions pop up. And they are one or more of the 5 W's: Who, What, When, Where, Why.

Side step: Question: Are there other kinds of questions I ask myself? Immediate answer: yes: this questions itself is of a different kind. An immediate negation: no. Reformulating the question in What are the other kinds of questions I ask myself? makes it fitting in the 5 W's. Lesson learned: don't ask questions with a yes/no answer. Ask open questions (or reformulate a temporary closed question as soon as possible).
Often others before me have asked the same questions, so possible answers can be found. In the current age more easily then 2 decades ago because of the high and easy availability of them.

What to do next? 
  • Follow the hyperlinks?
  • Looking for answers?
  • Try to find other questions?
  • Think about the question and if possibly reformulate it?
  • ... (Whenever lists are presented the ... stands for: What are the lacking elements in this list?)

Although the things I do to set up the question network are quite consistent, the order in which it is done is at best erratic. 
This works for me. You might have a complete way of discovering things. And that's fine.

What's on the agenda?

The best way to show you what activities are involved in making up my mind on a specific topic I propose to take you on a example tour. And will see that the initial specific topic is sometimes the least important (in time spent, in valuable insights, ...).

If you're reading this you are in an age where you're not a blank sheet. And if you are an artificial intelligence and can understand what is written you're neither.
So at some places I assume there are thinks you know (in which I might be wrong) in other places I'll explain things I assume you don't know (which might be wrong also). But I think I have no alternative.


In my personal notes I use permanently reference to sources providing some kind of information. Unfortunately when enthusiasm, speed of thinking, or something else makes me forget to do so, regrets are on the agenda sometime afterwards. 
But the situations where back-tracking to the origin of notes became necessary, provided lots of experiences. These are slightly of topic but the most important are the following. 
Internet resources are not stable over time (make local copies). 
Relying on things like browser history is highly unreliable.
Notes about an article, presentation etc. are a subset of the whole (probably only what appeared most striking at that moment). Memory retains more then the notes. Completing these notes after a second reading (perhaps much later in time) is often useful (mind has changed, attention focus has changed, mind wandering occurs at different moments, ...).

In the example I'll take you through, I'll omit the references because for showing the process it's not relevant and doing so should avoid you of being tempted to deviate from the red line.

Diving in

Image credit: Ricardo Liberato

Starting point: Pyramids, Egypt

The first thing I do is ask the question: What are the facts?
In other words: What is not subject to discussion (further questions)?
A few:
  • There are pyramids in Egypt.
  • Some are (partially) made of huge blocs (megalithic pyramids) others aren't.
  • Some have hieroglyphs, some haven't.
  • ...

All information that I cannot classify as a fact belongs to one or more belief systems. A random selection of some:
  • All are tombs
  • Some are tombs others are not
  • There is an astronomical relation to position and orientation
  • There is a relation with pyramids in other parts of the world.
  • ...

The next question is: 
Why do I classify this information as facts? 
Knowing that images can be falsified (including satellite images), human observation is not reliable, etc. (I've been there, done it, got the T-Shirt, so these things I know (facts) are from personal experience).
And of course we might live in a completely simulated world.
It's up to every one of you to make up your mind about this step. But be prepared to revision your axioms. And be pragmatic.

Primary question network

This action consist of generating as many questions as you can. Personally I associate them with further actions get potential answers, exploring hypotheses, finding details etc.
This is a real explosion of questions in many cases.

For the megalithic blocs for example (random order):
  • What are the natural stones?
  • What are the potential artificial stones (sort of concrete)?
  • What are techniques to distinguish natural from artificial blocs?
  • Where do the natural stones come from?
  • Why were huge blocs used?
  • What are the physical properties of these blocs?
  • What function (mechanical or other) might they have?
  • What techniques might be used to transport them?
  • What population was needed to transport them?
  • ...

For the hieroglyphs:
  • What do they mean (individually and as a story)?
  • Where does the interpretation of the meaning come from?
  • What is the age of them (compared to the construction)?
  • Why in some pyramids there are none?
  • ...

This initial primary question set is always long and incomplete. The questions themselves might often need reformulation (more precise or on the other hand more generic).

Looking for the answers

At many points in the whole process I look for existing answers.
The existing answers are initially considered as a more or less plausible hypothesis
The reason for this is that most answers don't provide the necessary argumentation to make it into a fact or even a plausible hypothesis.

Example of transporting huge natural stones via the Nile (boat or raft). Typical questions that arise for me when thinking about this technique:
  • What are the floating conditions necessary to transport them (Archimedes law)?
  • Can these floating conditions be achieved with the known techniques of that time?
  • What materials where used for the boats/rafts?
  • How long did these boats/rafts last?
  • Was there enough building material for the boats or rafts available, and where?
  • Could the Nile be used during the whole year?
  • What technique(s) were used to get the stones on the boats/rafts?
  • Is transport over land from the quarry to the Nile feasible (altitude profile, transport techniques)?
  • What time would the transport take?
  • What population is needed to support the workload?
  • What social system was needed?
  • ...

All these questions form what I call the secondary question network. And of course answers to these secondary questions will probably bring up new questions.

Is this endless?


But perhaps for other reasons then you might expect.

Let me sketch a few I encounter quite often:
  • Inaccessible answers: hidden in non public accessible scientific papers.
  • Never been studied (low priority, no budget, taken for granted).
  • Incomplete scientific data (meta data, raw data).
  • Lost scientific data.
  • ...

What is interesting to notice here is that starting with an archeological subject you cover domains like geology, hydrology, sociology, economy, ecology, astronomy, engineering, etymology and as we will see further on several other domains and implying a much more extended time span then the pure archeological context initially considered.

Taking a deep breath

Image credit:

After being thrown into this ocean of questions, floating on the surface and taking a few deep breaths of fresh air will provide fertile conditions to some other aspects of this quest.

A few other mental exercises are ahead.

Before reading further, please make a short list of questions that bother you in relation to this post.
Not on specific parts of the example I choose, but more on the ocean of questions.
Sort of helicopter view.

Apply this schema:

I hope you did, but for most of you I'll never know.

But I can tell you what I've put on that list.

My first question:
The Why's of why I cannot access certain answers (see the last list above).
The short (and incomplete) answer I can come up with for each of them:
  • economic
  • economic
  • scientific carelessness, fear of loss of power/status
  • carelessness, dogmatism
Things are on the move for most these, but we are far from the desired situation (from my point of view) and there is a lot of legacy stuff to correct.

Which of these questions (issued from an archeological topic) can be applied to examples in other domains? Asked slightly differently: What is the more generic form of the question that can be applied in other domains?
You know your classics, don't you? So you know the answer to the ultimate one.
The only thing to do is finding the ultimate question. 
Earth failed to provide it in 1978. 
Perhaps we are ready for it now.

Why do I have so many questions?


Ambiguous question. 

Let's try again.

Third A:
Why am I interested in the answer to so many questions?
That's an easy one: I just want to know (or at least have the feeling that I know). To see how things are interrelated, connected. 
Hmm... In fact not so easy. What's creating this life-long drive? Why do I want to see how things are related?
Hopefully I can give you an answer somewhere in the future. I owe you that.

Third B:
Why are the answers not just well known facts? or Why do we have to study our past?
Answer included in the forth question.

Why does knowledge gets lost over time?
Think of:
- individual: impossible to remember something you know you know (tip of the tongue)
- about whole civilizations
- techniques used by ancient civilizations
Question: Is it really lost or do we just fail to see it (interpret it for what it is)?

I can see combinations of:
- attention blindness (not seeing because focused on something else)
- destruction of the carrier before transmission 
- accidentally
- on purpose (destruction of books/people because doesn't fit with current belief systems)
- attention blindness: failure to interpret for what it is (e.g. focussing on details, not seeing the whole)
- so normal that it is not considered worth transmitting it on purpose. (e.g. etymology of expressions).
- it has already been recorded (or is available, you only have to point to it)
- voluntary obfuscation (elite, secret, security reasons, bad consequences, encryption)
- indoctrination (form of voluntary obfuscation inducing blindness)
- making it digestible for non specialists (vulgarization) and loosing the original knowledge (contains things like gods and their actions, metaphors,…)
- replaced by something "better".
- ...

Mankind has never been stupid, and knowledge/lore transmission has always existed: 
- pure biological: master and apprentice, oral (myths, legends, stories, daily life), telepathy?
- using persistent carriers: writing systems (hieroglyphs, carving, books), imaging (paintings)
- using pointers to where to retrieve it when needed.

This axiom opens a door to find the means to look for perceived losses but that are still there:
- thinking outside the box (change attention focus, or reduce focussing)
- try to understand what means might have been used (identifying the carriers, we need to think as the ancient people did, in their environment)

Here also secondary questions pop up. Just one for the fun:
What are the motivations behind voluntary obfuscation?

Wrapping up

Already shortly indicated at the end of the chapter "Looking for answers", there is no scientific domain that is not interconnected with all the others. Current, past and future.
Boxing science (separate science in domains) is equivalent to blinding yourself and thus no so much recommended.
It wasn't in the past, has become that way later on (and that is fully understandable), but I'm convinced that now we can break that artificially erected barrier.

Homework (if you wish):
- take whatever subject
- apply a similar process as the one described here
- share it in the comments.

And as you might have guessed if you have made it up to here, I'm quite open to questions.

Stay tuned as there is more to come.

Ronald Poell

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