By Marc Gilson
It’s a rainy, windy autumn morning in 1987. The semi-exposed concrete corridors of the community college echo with the strains of 50’s jazz – some red-eyed, break-of-dawn Miles Davis – through speakers somewhere above a low-hanging fog.
I drag my book bag into my 7:50am philosophy class and plop down in a seat next to my friend Brian. We grunt “good morning” to one another, sip our already cool coffees, and wait as our instructor walks in, lobs his briefcase onto his desk, and takes his seat at the front of the room. Other students, last-minute stragglers, file in from the rainy morning, shake the precipitation from their jackets, and squint under the cruelly bright overhead lighting.
Our instructor waits patiently for a moment while the late arrivals take their seats and the classroom grows quiet. We stare at the instructor, some of us doodling in our notebooks or thumbing through textbooks, waiting for the class to begin, for him to start his lecture, for him to do something.
But he just sits there staring at us. The weirdo.
Finally, without a word, he picks up a pen and holds it out to his right, about three feet over the floor. And then he lets go of it.
It hits the carpeted floor with a slight bounce. He reaches down, picks it up, holds it out, and drops it again. He picks it up. He drops it. Picks it up. Drops it. Picks it up. We’re all pretty sure he’s finally lost his mind. Philosophy teachers are susceptible to such things.
He does this pen-dropping thing four, five, six more times until some of us begin chuckling at him.
Undeterred, he picks up the pen, holds it out again, and says, “Who can tell me what’s about to happen?” After a moment or two of silence someone to my left says, “You’re going to drop the pen again?”
“Yes, I am,” he says. “And when I do, what do you think will happen?”
Someone else says, “It will fall to the floor.”
“Okay,” he says, “what makes you think that?”
“Because,” says my friend, Brian, “that’s what happens when you drop things like pens. They fall to the floor.”
“But why?” the instructor asks.
“Because of gravity,” I venture.
“And what is gravity?”
“It’s a law of physics!” states a petite girl with blue-dyed hair sitting in the front row.
“Ah! A law!” the instructor says. “So when I drop this pen again there is no doubt that gravity – being a law – will cause it to fall to the floor?” We nod.
(Some readers will quickly want to remind us that gravity is, technically, a theory. Without delving into the details too much, we can say this: The ways in which gravity itself works are theoretical. But that objects with mass can be attracted to one another is a law and happens to be what gravity is based upon. So for most practical science, gravity works every bit as much as a “law,” and its designation as a “theory” only implies that we’re still learning about the many ways in which gravity, and forces related to it, operate. The term “theory” in science should not be confused with the term “unfounded.”)
“How many people think that as soon as I let go of this pen, it’s going to fall to the floor?” We all raise our hands, some more assuredly than others. “Anybody disagree?” Nobody objects.
“Well,” says my instructor, “let’s see if you’re right.”
Once again, he lets go of the pen, and it…hovers about four inches below his open palm. A couple people gasp. Like magic, the pen is suspended in mid-air. Just floating there!
“It’s a trick!” says my friend Brian. It takes a few seconds for us to realize that there is, in fact, a very thin, almost invisible thread attached to the pen, and to his hand, and that this is what’s keeping the pen from falling to the floor. “Looks like you were wrong,” he says to the class.
“That’s cheating!” says one student, and some of us nod.
He smiles at us and says, “But it’s not, is it? I asked you a simple question. And you answered that the pen would fall to the floor. I let go of the pen, but it did not hit the floor. You decided that gravity meant that the pen would hit the floor. But it didn’t. That’s simply not what happened.”
“Yeah but you didn’t tell us about the string!” says someone else. “You mean this?” and he holds out the thin thread, wrapping it around his thumb a few times. “So this little string somehow defies gravity?” he asks.
Some seem confused. Others even irritated. “Without the thread, the pen would have fallen down,” says one student.
“Highly likely,” says the instructor, “but the point is that it didn’t.” We sit there awhile, contemplating the situation; this is philosophy class, and therefore we are used to some mental shenanigans. Had it not been for that string, the pen would have hit the ground. But did the string really override gravity? Or was there something else happening here? We sip our cold coffees, click our pens, and stare at him. He stares back.
“I overcame one thing. What is it?” We sit there.
Someone finally says, “Gravity?”
“Not really. Gravity still did its job to the extent that it could,” he says, “What was the one thing I overcame using nothing but a piece of string?” Silence.
Finally, one brave soul puts up his hand and timidly says, “Our…expectations?”
“BINGO!” our instructor shouts. (It’s far too early in the morning for shouting.) He continues on, slowly but surely bringing us a little clarity on this simple but unusual object lesson.
“Your expectations were attached to an outcome, and this outcome formed a kind of bias against other possibilities. One of you said I was cheating. Maybe, but so what? I never promised not to. But you were so sure of the outcome that you didn’t factor in that possibility. You expected me to play by rules you had in your head.
“Given enough time and thought, it’s possible you might have guessed what could happen. But let’s be honest here: you had been influenced by what you had witnessed happening repeatedly before. And, knowing how the world usually works, you probably would have expected the exact same outcome even if you hadn’t watched me do it over and over again first. You were influenced by your past experience and so you thought you knew the outcome. And then, eventually, you were wrong.”
“So how were we supposed to know about the string?” asks one student.
“Have you ever seen a string before?”
“Have you seen strings capable of supporting the weight of a pen?”
“So you therefore already knew that there are strings out there capable of supporting a pen like this one. But you didn’t consider the possibility that I had such a string. Or if you thought that it was possible that I had one, you trusted me not to use the string to keep the pen from falling to the floor. Or you didn’t see any string and so assumed that there wasn’t one. If you’re honest, the notion of a string probably never crossed your minds. Whatever the case, you all – every single one of you – made an assumption that turned out to be wrong.”
“Let’s try this again,” he says. Once again, he holds the pen out at arm’s length and says, “I’m going to let go of this pen. What’s going to happen?”
“Do you have a string attached to the pen?” I ask.
“No,” he says, “I promise. No strings.”
We sit and think about the possibilities. A couple people even whisper back and forth.
“Well,” said the blue-haired girl up front, “If you let go of the pen and there’s no string then it will hit the floor.”
“Is that everyone’s opinion?”
There is tentative silence but I, at least, could think of no other possibility.
“There is no string. So how many of you think the pen will fall on the floor?” Most hands go up, including mine.
“Alright, let’s see what happens.” He lets go of the pen, and with one swift move of his foot, he kicks his waste paper basket right underneath it. The pen clatters into the basket, and the class groans. It didn’t hit the floor! My teacher is grinning. “Come on!” said one exasperated student, summing up the general reaction of the class.
“What??” says my teacher, “I didn’t violate any laws of physics! I didn’t use any strings either! I promised not to and I didn’t. I just altered the range of outcomes in the moment to one I chose without telling you beforehand. Just like last time. After all, the question before you was whether the pen would hit the floor, and it didn’t.” There are sighs of frustration and head-shaking.
“Listen people, the point is this,” and we knew enough to sharpen our attention whenever he said ‘listen people…’ “Expectations can be dangerous. They can lead you to believe in an outcome that may not occur. Critical thinking, both in philosophy and in life in general, means taking great care to balance the value of our experience with the absolute necessity of considering all possible outcomes. Otherwise, we get stuck thinking we know what’s going to happen and when life throws us a curve ball – or your philosophy instructor happens to have some magic string in his desk, or an incredibly quick foot – it can knock your certainty for a loop.”
“So should we just not trust our experience?” asks my friend.
“No, you have to trust your experiences. I’m talking about trusting expectations. Experience and expectations are not the same thing. Expectations are born of experience, but while no single experience can be called ‘wrong,’ the expectations we build on them certainly can fail us.”
“But,” says one student, “isn’t experience itself a posteriori knowledge? Don’t we need to have an experience in order to gain knowledge?”
“Excellent question! Of course we do. Experience is what gives us information. But what we assume or anticipate will happen because we are already experienced in a given set of outcomes is the risk. Experience tells us what’s happened, and sometimes what’s likely to happen. But it cannot tell us what will happen. It can never, ever, do that.”
“Think about the role you played in the outcome. Think about how what you didn’t think of, or didn’t see beforehand, was much more of a factor in what happened than what you expected, even though you’re armed with all kinds of valid experience, including science.
“When we study statistics and odds, we find data that supports experience. But once we tie an expectation to that, we have to be aware that we’re running a certain risk. Sports is a great teacher of this idea. Don’t bad baseball teams sometimes beat good ones? Can’t a novice golfer hit a hole-in-one? Sometimes the second-string quarterback throws a long hail Mary pass into the end zone and it’s caught by a receiver, right? All of these things go against expectations and experience. And yet they happen all the time, even though they run counter to the odds.”
“I always root for the underdog,” chimes-in the blue-haired girl.
“Ah good!” my instructor replies, “Some would say you’re naive.” We laugh, and she scowls at us.
“Oh, no reason to laugh!” he says, “Others would say you have hope. Or maybe it’s really because you know that, however unlikely, it is possible that the underdog will be victorious. And sometimes they are! Isn’t that satisfying when it happens? Some would say that’s just luck. Or maybe luck is a word we resort to when our expectations were too limited by what we thought would happen.” There is some nodding at this idea.
“Sometimes, the unexpected happens. Sometimes the odds-makers are wrong. Sometimes your expectations are going to be shattered. Is that because something went wrong with the math? Or is it because our experiences can’t fully predict outcomes?
“What if the truth is that our expectations are usually far too limited by our experiences? What if the range of possible outcomes for any given event far exceeds what our minds usually allow us to consider? Remember this, guys, your brain thinks it knows a lot more than it does. Most of us old people – the wise ones anyway – will tell you the same thing: the older and wiser you get, the more you’ll realize this truth…because you’ve been around long enough to see it happen. That’s why youth thinks it knows more than it does…it just hasn’t been around long enough to know that there are strings and wastebaskets that tend to shake up one’s expectations”
As class concluded and we headed back out into the rainy morning, I had the distinct impression of having learned something truly worthwhile, even though at the time I could not articulate just what it was.
I admit that on that cold, wet morning I didn’t really appreciate the value of this lesson much. It seemed kind of silly to me, these games with pens and strings and wastebaskets. But over the years that day keeps coming back to me, and the lesson has crystallized into something important.
When we think we know what’s going to happen because we’ve seen something just like it happen over and over before, life sometimes changes up the outcome. We think we know, when we really don’t. We’re blind to so many possible outcomes because we allow our experience, and the experiences of others, to dictate the outcome. When we become attached to a specific set of outcomes, we blind ourselves to other possibilities.
Sure, we have to trust our experience and play the odds sometimes. Any gambler can tell you that. Experience is the greatest teacher, but like any teacher, it doesn’t know everything. And if we get stuck thinking those odds are ultimately determinant, well we’re eventually going to have a rude wake-up call.
Life can be a harsh teacher. It can knock us down. No, scratch that. It WILL knock us down, over and over. We will lose. We will hurt. We will draw the short straw. We will become frustrated sometimes and wonder where the justice is. We’ll wonder how and when we’ll ever get a freaking break.
When this is our experience, let’s remember the Pen Lesson. We might think we know just what’s about to happen. But the universe is a place of almost unlimited possibilities. Sometimes the outcomes will go in our favor, sometimes not. Sometimes life will thrill us, sometimes it will chill us. But let’s not become so attached to an expected outcome, positive or negative, that we fail to remain open to – and prepared for – any and all other possibilities. Almost anything can happen. So let’s not fail to plan for the contingencies. Let’s not ignore the risks and let’s not ignore the possible blessings.
What might life be like when we avoid getting stuck thinking we know just what’s going to happen? We really have no idea, after all. Our lives could be forever altered, perhaps for better or perhaps tragically, by the time you finish reading the following sentence. After all, our considerable knowledge and experience aside, a loose string is enough to undo all our expectations.