Before I settled in to the humanities I was into the “dark side” that is science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In fact as a child I was enough of a math prodigy to take an enrichment math course at Columbia University while sill in sixth grade. This course introduced us to new math systems like calculus and Boolean algebra. The most important thing it taught to me was that math systems are all based on a set of freely accepted and unchallenged assumptions called postulates.  For example the math system we commonly use is based on several postulates like the agreed principle that a x 1 = a, that is, anything multiplied by 1 is itself (2 x 1 = 2; 145 x 1 = 145 etc.) The course showed me that if we change the postulates, for example if we agree that a x 1 = 1 (anything times 1 equals 1), we will get an entirely different mathematical system with different consequences and properties. Some of these postulate changes and new systems are useful because they fit some real world phenomena and others are little more than intellectual curiosities.

Over the years I have seen that this also applies to non-mathematical systems of thought which for convenience I will call ideologies. They are based upon some basic assumptions that are either jointly agreed upon, accepted as truth, or believed in as “faith” and as a consequence are unchallengeable. These systems of thought form what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called a “model of reality.” Take for example a road map, it is a symbolic representation of where the roads, buildings, scenic attractions etc. in actuality are. It is what Geertz means by a model of reality.  With this road map you can make a plan for your behavior. Google Maps for example draws a line on its map of reality to show you which streets you should take to reach your desired destination.  Geertz calls this route on the model of reality a “model for reality.” In other words depending on what your model of reality tells you, you plan what you are going to do, how you are going to live your life accordingly in a model for reality. Your system of thought is based on assumptions that that ultimately determine your behavior.

What that math class taught me was that systems of thought are not only based on accepted assumptions but that those assumptions can be changed. Just as you don’t have to assume that a x 1 = 1, you don’t have to believe that the sun rotates around the earth, that things happen for no reason, there is an afterlife or people do things only out of selfish motives.  One chooses (or perhaps your culture and society chooses for you) what assumptions to accept as simply the way things in actuality are and you simply live in the world with the model for reality which that model of reality allows or creates. Accepting this has, I think, allowed for good things in how I approach the world.  First of all it has created flexibility when thinking about the world. As experience has demonstrated otherwise, I have been willing to change assumptions I held dear to refine my model of reality and therefore change my model for reality. It is a long way from the “ghettos” I grew up in and the rarefied atmosphere of academia in which I have spent most of my life. I have also found it provides a way of thinking “outside my box” by trying out alternative assumptions and seeing where that leads me. I have tried to teach that to students.  What happens if just for argument’s sake you assume that the accepted wisdom is wrong, that the place where you should start is just the opposite of what you first thought? Does that open new ways of thinking for you? This flexibility has produced a healthy skepticism and yet it has not left me adrift. It has not led me to believe that all systems of thought are arbitrary but rather confirmed that my system of thought is one I chose, one I believe represents a reality.

It has also led to a healthy respect for other systems of thought even if they lead to behaviors I find abhorrent. For example if one assumes that “black” people are inherently inferior, of limited intelligence and sub-human then it seems perfectly reasonable to prevent them from voting, limit their education and avoid living near them. This is based on a faulty model of reality and not irrational behavior, impossible to understand reasoning or so forth.  When I encounter behavior that makes no sense to me I try to see the system of thought upon which it is based. Rather than see their actions as insane, evil, stupid or just emotional and not rational, I see them as misguided or mistaken yet based upon some “ideology” that I just don’t yet understand.

Finally it has led to a model for reality in my own life.  If there are behaviors I think should change in other people, I understand that I need to do one of two things.  I either need to work to change the models of reality on which those behaviors are based or I need to try to argue for a change within the parameters of that ideology. Nelson Mandela’s genius was in realizing that he should convince the people in power that the model of reality on which they based their fears and actions was wrong, untenable, expensive and would lead to their destruction. Once they were convinced that Mandela and his comrades were reasonable men like themselves and not the subhuman brutes in their model of reality, they could begin to contemplate the end of apartheid.

Changing postulates is not easy.  They are buried under layers of what we believe to be truisms and it is hard to dig through our thoughts to the bedrock assumptions most of us take for granted. It is even harder to question those because we fear it may leave us adrift.   If we do make the effort however we may find whole new worlds opening to us.


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