Thursday, September 3, 2009

The difference between what, how, and why

This came up in the same conversation I referenced below and I decided it was important enough to make a brief note on. I think its something people can often get confused by.

As a stage magician I've had a great deal of practical training in both critical thinking, and lying. After all, much of a magician's job is to lie to the audience and make them believe it. (Although I also firmly believe that these are lies told with a wink. I always want my audience to know that my job is to tell them a lie they will have fun pretending to believe, even if they really know better. This is why mentalists who pose as genuine psychics upset me. I think you do your audience a disservice when you leave them with false beliefs they might take into the real world and act upon.)

One important critical thinking skill is to be able to clearly separate different questions in your head and not confuse them or assume that proof of one proves another. In specific, our freind the NLP adherent kept insisting that, because the hypnotic techniques he knows work, his explaination of why they work must be right. This in fact is a common fallacy of religious thinking. Someone tells me that x effect has y cause. I see x effect, so I assume that the cause must be y.

I call this the difference between 'what', 'how' and 'why', and I gave him this example:

A piece of paper bursts into flame. That's a 'what'.

A man holds a glass lens at the right angle to the sun to make the paper burst into flame. That's a 'how'.

The great burning turtle in the sky who swims around the world is attracted by his own reflection in the lens and when he stares into it his immortal power burns the paper beneath. That's a 'why'.
From that example I hope it is fairly obvious that the existence of a what and a how does not prove any particular why.

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