Saturday, March 1, 2008

My newfound love for history

When I was in school, I never used to like history much. My favorite subject was physics. In the last couple of years I have found myself getting increasingly attracted to history. Initially, I did not know why this was happening to me. Now I feel that I might have a clue about what is going on. There are two factors involved - my changing perception about what history is all about and a better understanding about how my mind works.

Earlier, I used to view history as a description of a series of events/happenings . Now I am beginning to see the connections between these events and also the underlying patterns (social, cultural and psychological) - the forces that cause/ shape these events*.

Again I have realized that I have a 'connection seeking and pattern recognising' mind (my top two strengths in Gallup 'Strength Finder' are 'Ideation' and 'Strategic') - whenever I get an idea (a connection between two apparently unconnected things) or recognize an underlying pattern in apparently random data, I get a jolt of energy. I feel more alive and happy!.

I also realize that my love for physics is also largely because of the fascination with 'laws of physics'. A law in physics is nothing but a statement of the patterns underlying a set of phenomena. Earlier, I was viewing the events in history only at the phenomena level - as discrete happenings. Now I view history at the idea level - in terms of connections and patterns - in terms of the underlying principles of sociology, cultural anthropology and psychology - and hence my newfound love for history. By the way, understanding of the patterns* in the past events would also help us to make predictions about the future - making the study history even more useful!

I don't feel that the discovery/addition of 'pragmatic reasons' for doing something takes away anything from the original pure/aesthetic reasons for doing that thing. While it can be argued that 'engineering is prostitution of science', no one can argue that the the tremendous benefits derived from engineering has hurt pure science, so long us study of pure science does not get neglected because of the pragmatic reasons for studying engineering. After all, pure scientists would also need computers/databases to easily access relevant information related to their field of study, funds to support their research and aeroplanes to go to conferences !

*Note: I realize that many of these 'patterns' or 'trends' are retrofitted (i.e. they emerge only in retrospect). Now, if one looks for 'patterns' one is likely to find patterns - if the data set (or database) that one is looking at is sufficiently large. Some of these patterns would be purely accidental - and hence might not mean anything. So theorizing (especially theorizing that involve establishing cause and effect relationships) and predicting on the basis of these patterns can be problematic. From a 'scientific method' point of view, it is a much better approach to 'create a hypothesis first and then look at the data set to test the hypothesis' as compared to proceeding the other way around. Of course, hypotheses don't come out of nothing - often they are triggered by observations. So what one should guard against is the tendency to look only for data that confirms the hypothesis as opposed to looking at all the available data to test the hypothesis. So I understand that some of the patterns that I see don't mean anything. But that does not reduce the pure joy that I experience when I see patterns or the importance of pattern recognition in my life - as pattern recognition is a very key part of my individuality. I think I can safely indulge in this activity in its pure form (even without the precautions mentioned above) so long as I am doing it for intrinsic satisfaction and not for deriving actionable inferences!!!

1 comment:

C.K.Samuel said...

"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it."
The Rubaiyat - Omar Khayyam