Two variables, four outcomes and a practising non-believer

Sometimes there are too many variables. When asked complicated speculative questions (which often begin, “What would you do if …?” or, worse, “What would you have done if …?”) my usual answer is, “Too many variables”. I like to keep things simple and think of circumstances where there are two variables, and each variable has only two options.

This applies when we learn a new skill. First we are unaware that we are unable to perform a certain task: we have unconscious incompetence. Then we move to conscious incompetence: we become aware that we can’t perform the task and begin to acquire the necessary skills. When we have acquired some of the skills we need (and often we have to break the task into smaller chunks to achieve this) we move to conscious competence. Finally, when we have mastered the required skills, we move to unconscious competence: we no longer need to break the task down to smaller chunks or think about how we do it. We have two variables (awareness and competence) and four outcomes, ranging from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. I would have found this concept very useful when learning to drive.

There are times, when dealing with two variables, when one of the four options may seem illogical but still worth considering. There was an example discussed in this interview from 13 years ago with Sir Martin Rees (Astronomer Royal, former Master of my old college, now Lord Rees of Ludlow), which is still on the Guardian website:

“I describe myself sometimes as a practising but non-believing Christian. I don’t believe in any dogmas. But on the other hand I do believe there is a benefit and value to be gained from participating in common rituals.”

There are two variables here (practising a religion and believing in it) and we probably all know people who are examples of three of the four outcomes: practising believers, non-practising believers and (logically enough) non-practising non-believers. But whoever heard of a practising non-believer? Well, the Astronomer Royal is a good example. Ever since reading that interview, all those years ago, the idea has been on mind. Sometimes it’s worth considering all four outcomes even if one of them doesn’t seem to make as much sense as the others.



One thought on “Two variables, four outcomes and a practising non-believer

  1. Following the same thinking as Martin Rees, Alain de Botton writes about the many enjoyable shared activities that can form part of religious life in his book ‘Religion for Athiests’. For example, the joy of singing together or meeting a group of people regularly, say every Sunday morning. I have only read the first few chapters, I should go back and finish it.


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