Decisions, trees and cycles

I’ve been having recurring conversations with myself on the merits of past decisions; not necessarily my decisions, but the decision making process and analysis in general. There is nothing stoic in these conversations. I would rather not hear of them. Yet the consciousness remains untameable. Perhaps in writing I can calm this train of thought for a time.

Our mindset tends to prime itself on past decisions, their consequences, and of course a myriad of endless factors in our field of attention, propaganda, etc. This harvesting of information creates unnecessary emotional as well as financial burden, complicating life in general. A lot of it pertains to what I’ve already written, but here I offer an alternative analysis.

One may pass years filled with regret. What if I had done X, or not done Y? What if I had undertaken that certain risk and acted? What if I had opted for inaction? What if I had taken advantage of one opportunity, and passed on the other?

The alternate histories number infinitely many, considering the entire space of factors initiated by us, others, and nature. Then there’s the influence of that infamously fiendish agent by the name of stochasticity. Do stochastic branches exist, or is it a simplification used to narrow an otherwise much more complex tree? Likewise, is everything deterministic, constructed to the minor atomic detail? Is there free will? These questions I shall not pursue further.

I tend to visualize the decision space as a tree. A tree of virtually infinite breadth and depth. My computer science background is to thank, or to blame for this. You would be surprised at how many a problem facilitates the transformation into that of a tree structure. Problems in the domains of search, graph theory, game theory, probability, AI, computability and complexity theory, compilers, quantum computing and parallel processing are a few among the numerous candidates.

Bear in mind that a tree, be it in nature or mathematics, by definition, can not contain cycles. No two unique paths between two nodes of a tree can exist. A flow chart, for example, is not necessarily a tree, as it allows two different decisions to lead to the same node. On the other hand, you, my friend, are a sort of a tree if you consider all of your joints as nodes. At least this holds for anyone not having fused together their hands, feet, or fingers. I would be curious if any skeletal life form features naturally cyclical joints.

With that said, I faced certain confusion on the streets of Foz do Iguaçú (Paraná, Brazil) as I encountered a tree with what appeared to be cycles among the branches. Initially I felt ecstatic over the prospect of either the universe having opted for sick leave and turned a blind eye to the proper functioning of things, or, having finally witnessed a solid proof of the plausible conjecture that we inhabit a simulation. After some time, however, I realized that I merely faced a severely contorted branch pattern. I first attributed this to some tree illness, but then encountered more trees of this provocative type. Of course, I wouldn’t leave you without a photographic showcase from at least one angle:

Moving on with our tree-like decision spaces. If we imagine our life as one chosen path along the tree, we are primed on our experiences along that branch. All we can observe is our present node and the path we have followed to reach it. What we don’t see are the countably infinite other alternate histories that fill the parallel branches. Countably infinite, by the way, is not an oxymoron in the sense of computability.

So what of the overanalysis of past decisions? We know what we’ve done, or not done, and find ourselves tragically burdened with regret. I’m being dramatic to strengthen the point. However, can we know with any certainty what branch we would have activated by following an alternate course of action? Or inaction? Do we know anything on the nature of regrets in that branch of alternate history? Perhaps in avoiding one decision leading to a regret, we create opportunity for three others? Among so many parallel branches, we simply cannot conceptualize the sorts of alternate histories we may have activated in circumventing all the similarly difficult to conceptualize set of decisions having led to a pattern of regret.

There’s also much social priming and stigma with regard to action vs inaction, risk taking, committing mistakes and learning from them. I should know. I propagate such paradigms frequently enough! Yet what if we observed the problem in a more abstract sense of all decisions essentially being tree nodes, be they supposed actions, inactions, behavior we consider risky, safe, and applying similar logic to the gravity of the consequences? Perhaps in avoiding decisions that we humbly imagine as necessarily valiant, we activate a branch with even more satisfying events fitting to our own definition? By a similar argument, an infinite number of branches present more ‘learning’ opportunity, and another infinite number present less.

Another question: do you consider yourself a relativist, an absolutist, or something else entirely? As a relativist, you can always justify your course of history by acknowledging the presence of an endless set of less favorable alternate histories. As an absolutist, you could argue that such behavior justifies any level of mediocrity, arguing for a firm platform of set values and aspirations. You may also find yourself somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. And that also primes your reality, influencing how you observe the entire tree and activate your chosen path. In the outlier cases, one person heavily inclined towards an absolutist behavior may face severe depression in not having lived up to own platform. Likewise, a heavily inclined relativist may encounter a road filled with grand success, in accordance with and even surpassing own criteria. A stoic would consider such measures largely superfluous.

As a matter of fact, your denomination in the above regard is part of the tree, as well as your decision to stop and analyze your denomination, or read this post even. Not only that, but your reading this post may influence my history.

Now, I’m not proposing any set of behavior. Rather, I’m emphasizing that most such historical analysis leads to futile territory. It burdens, takes up space, and channels energy from more productive endeavours.

I prefer a short-term memory approach to decision making. Do as you must to achieve what you desire. Maintain a working historical memory long enough to actually observe the outcome. The particular time period can vary significantly, so be patient. Assimilate useful information for future decisions, but be mindful what you actually consider useful. Then disregard the past. Don’t needlessly regress and reanalyze. Avoid needless cycles.