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The Tinkered Mind
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October 15th, 2019
It’s an impressive feat of biology, nature and evolution that you can understand this sentence. At least, you sort of understand this sentence. As of yet, you can’t understand the context, even though that first sentence can read like its own tidy package that creates it’s own context. And if you are a frequent visitor of Tinkered Thinking perhaps the notion of that first sentence feels reminiscent of much of the discussion that has occurred on Tinkered Thinking over the last 500 and some-odd days. Regardless, that first sentence, like any introductory sentence seeks to lay a first stone in the foundation of a context that then grows with each succeeding sentence. Continually, the larger question of any argument, story, or discussion is: where does it go from here?
The hope with any piece of writing or speech is that we start with some sort of common ground, and from there we take our audience on some sort of quest to a different place where a new perspective awaits.
The everlasting problem with this hope is that we do not ever start with common ground. The simple reason for this is rather physical and straight-forward: every single person’s perspective is unique, and even though we can take turns standing in the same place, looking in the same direction at the same subject, we cannot do so at the same time, and more importantly, we cannot do so with the exact same personal history, otherwise, we’d – of course – be the same person.
This fact that we all have unique perspectives is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is easy to point out: it’s the cause behind all bickering, disagreement, confusion, trolling, hate, and that oh-so-delightful feeling that no one can understand where you’re coming from. It’s for good reason: you’re the only one there. . .
This unique perspective is a gift because it can be leveraged to a great and unique effect. No one else can see the world from your point of view, and this means that each of us sees all the world’s problems at an angle that no one else can. It might so happen that this is a privileged angle that empowers us with the symmetrical ability to see a solution no one else can because they can’t see the problem like we do. We can think of a literal hypothetical to make this clear. Let’s do a little thought experiment.
Imagine a square room. At the midway point of each wall, a person is chained, and you are one of these four people. No one can really move. And in the center of this square room is an unreachable cube. Naturally the bottom can’t be seen, and it’s aligned with the room so each person can only see one side of the cube. Let’s say all the cube faces are blank except the one you can see. It’s got the word ‘Seven’ on it. And then from an unknown location, a speaker turns on and an ominous voice says “This room will fill with a deadly gas unless someone calls out the symbol on the box.”
In this simple hypothetical, you have the privileged perspective. Everyone else is bound to their point of view and quite literally can’t see the side of the box that you can. They see a blank face of the cube and nothing else. Your unique perspective is the key to solving everyone’s predicament.
This hypothetical, while simple is a perfect analogy to the way we are all trapped in our own perspective, and simultaneously privileged by that perspective in that it’s accessible to no one else.
While many of us may move through life in very similar ways, no two people can possibly share the exact same perspective through time.
If we are thoughtful, and perhaps lucky, we might be able to create the liking of an intersection; where two minds try their damnedest to create a simulation of the other’s perspective. How close these simulations resemble one another, or how symmetrical they are dictates how well we understand one another.
Amazingly, one of the most robust tools for creating symmetry is a system that exists purely as a concept: numbers.
Numbers have a unique ability to create incredible fidelity between perspectives, but we need only ask a question to illuminate how strange this tool is:
Where does 7 exist?
The concept is not present in the graphical symbol, nor in the sound waves when we say it. And yet there’s less debate about what 7 means than there is about some actual phenomena that we can witness, like say, a magic trick. Say you and a bunch of friends watch a very effective magic trick. Everyone experienced it with their senses. They can say what time it occurred, and what location and who was involved… and yet, if it’s a well executed magic trick, no one will be sure what actually happened, and everyone is going to have their own guess about what might have happened.
Perhaps one person in the group had gone to the bathroom and reentered the room behind the magician and caught just the right angle to see what the magician was doing behind their back that gives away the trick.
In this way we can see how our perspective is again like being chained to a wall in that hypothetical room.
But the number 7, like most numbers that we deal with on a human level consists of a system that aligns perspectives with high fidelity. Much higher fidelity than most words.
The meaning of 7 doesn’t shift. It’s got a transferable property, in that its meaning can be applied to other things, like the number of chickens in a coop. But it’s meaning remains incredibly consistent whether we are talking about chickens or black holes.
Most words are not so stable.
S.I. Hayakawa, author of the classic work on semantics entitled Language in Thought and Action went so far as to write:
“If we can get deeply into our consciousness the principle that no word ever has the same meaning twice, we will develop the habit of automatically examining contexts, and this will enable us to understand better what others are saying.”
This might sound insane at first: that no word ever means the same thing twice. Too take this as literally as possible it means that dictionaries are outdated and inaccurate the moment they are published. But if we combine this with the fact that we all have unique perspectives, perhaps it becomes a little more approachable. Though the words in this sentence seem as though they mean what you’ve always associated with them, no one can possibly approach the words in this sentence in the exact same way that you do. This even extends to yourself given a different time. A second reading yields a different effect than the first, and so does the third, and so on and so forth.
The unique way in which you discovered the meaning and use of these words and then continued to use them yourself informs your interpretation of what’s going on here in terms of meaning. Inevitably, it’s going to be different than anyone else and certainly different than the person who constructed this sentence. The static construction of these words might make it seem as though it’s something stable that can be revisited, but it’s not.
The meaning of words functions like a river. But it’s not the words that are moving so much as it is our minds.
Not only are our minds arriving at meaning from different places but they will continue on to evolve in disparate directions.
We are continually seeking to establish common ground, the problem is that the only ground on offer is quicksand.
Let’s return for a moment to our hypothetical square-room-thought-experiment where everyone is chained to a wall. The speaker turns on, and asks for a single person to call out the symbol that is on the box. Except in this version of the hypothetical, you see the word ‘seven’, and on the other sides of the cube are different words that you can’t see. On top of this the cube appears to be transparent and this illusion makes it looks as though nothing is written on the other sides of the cube. So each person sees something different written on the cube and believes that it’s the only thing that’s written on the cube. Now imagine the confusion and horror when everyone pipes up and yells out a different answer. Everyone is trying to solve for the problem, but each person’s unique perspective not only makes them think they are right, but also primes them to think everyone else is wrong and that everyone else is acting out in some sort of bizarre kind of self-sabotage.
If that feeling of sinking confusion and astonishment doesn’t sound familiar. . .
than welcome to Earth.
Additionally we can view a word as a kind of simulation. By saying the word ‘boat’ we invoke a simulation of boat-ness in another person’s mind. Of course they might have a cruise ship in mind while you were thinking of a three-masted barque. Both have enough boat-ness to qualify, in the same way that the concept of the number 7 is transferable to 7 chickens or 7 black holes. . . but not 3 aphids.
Another way to say simulation is simply ‘model’. Words are perhaps the most basic mental-models of real-world details. And language allows us to transfer infinite combinations of these mental models to one another in order to get a better idea of what’s going on.
This is what any mental model does, whether we are using a Bell curve or Bayesian Updating. They help us get a handle of what is actually going on through strategic simplification. Or rather, they help us understand what might be going on with reality.
As Charlie Munger once said:
“If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. You’ve got to have models in your head. You can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.”*
In the same exact way that every analogy is flawed, all mental models are incomplete. The effectiveness of any mental model is dependent on the context to which we apply it, for example, Hanlon’s Razor might not be the best mental model to have at the forefront when dealing with a psychopath.
At base, these mental models are sense-making frameworks that simplify the world into chunks that are more understandable as a result. Like the number 7, they consist of concepts that retain their utility when transferred to different contexts that have enough similarities.
Let’s explore a statement as a kind of mental model. Here’s the claim:
People do things for only two reasons: If feels pleasurable, and/or it conveys sexiness.
This might be overly simplistic, and to some it might even seem offensively simplistic. Indeed, at first glance it would be understandable to think that this claim is missing out on a lot of what goes on in human affairs.
But let’s explore it in detail.
It’s intuitive that we do some things because they feel good, however pleasure is on a spectrum of sensation. At the other end of this spectrum is pain, discomfort -or most appropriately- displeasure. Doing something because it’s pleasurable ultimately includes doing things that decrease displeasure and move a person along the spectrum towards some sort of pleasurable state. So this first half of the claim also covers our motives concerning what’s painful, or simply unwanted, like, say: baby puke on your shirt. You’re motivated to change shirts because it’s more pleasing to have a clean one on.
As an aside, it’s important to note that anything that is pleasant or pleases a person in any way also qualifies as being pleasurable since these words have the exact same root word. Splitting hairs over connotative subtleties is pedantic since pleasing and pleasant are both represented very closely to pleasure on the discussed spectrum that stretches between pleasure and pain.
Another example might be if the baby pukes on the shirt of your spouse. You might go get them a fresh shirt, and helping out in that way feels good.
Feeling good, while sharing no root word with the word ‘pleasure’ also counts as synonymous because of where this concept would fall on the pleasure-pain spectrum. Feeling good is sure to be much closer to pleasure than pain.
Things like tradition and religion also fit into this framework of pleasure. People follow laws because the consequences of not doing so are presumably painful, and therefore staying in accord with laws or traditions generally creates a more pleasant experience. People follow the ideas of the bible for much the same reason, not to mention the pleasant sense of community and belonging that come along with such a tradition.
We must also take into account the incredible amount of social pain someone would have to endure in order to leave such a situation. Megan Phelps-Roper who was a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church has spoken about such anguish. And yet, in that case, it’s clear that the anguish of being an inconsistent person was far more painful than the social pain that ensued as a result of her departure.
And on that note there is of course, an entire universe of pain that we purposefully and consciously put ourselves through. Which seems –at first- to invalidate the first half of this claim. But that is why there is the second part of the claim regarding the conveyance of sexiness.
We are at core, biological machines that seek to replicate and pass on our genes. Or at least that’s the point of view handed to us from the large mental-model of evolutionary biology and Charles Darwin. And this mental model does seem to explain a lot of weird things.
Sexual selection is the often convoluted way in which organisms signal reproductive fitness to one another. A peacock’s tail is the classic example. If a male peacock can live a strong and healthy life, then it will have a large and beautiful tail that it can show off. What this tail ‘means’ within the perspective afforded by the mental-model of evolutionary biology is: ‘look at me, I’m soooooo good at surviving that I’m thriving and I can waste resources on this big cumbersome tail that actually makes me more susceptible to predators but I’m so awesome that I still survive even with this gorgeous handicap that I’ve given myself on purpose. I’d be a perfect match if you want your kids to be strong and talented at survival like me.’
Going to the gym to have a really fit body is a similar example. It’s usually much more pleasurable to just sit on the couch and eat junk food while binging on the latest Netflix show, but we put ourselves through the pain of staying fit. One of the possible reasons for doing this is to convey sexiness, and therefore reproductive fitness. Then of course, this process itself becomes a pleasurable habit.
Conveying sexiness is why we would consciously go backwards on the pleasure-pain spectrum. Another caveat to mention is that a pleasant state can simply overrules the sexiness factor, like wearing socks with sandals. It’s definitely not sexy, so it must be comfortable and pleasing.
Another objection to this claim might involve things like love and compassion. A mother caring for a child or volunteers serving food to the poor. How do acts of selflessness fit into this pleasure and sexiness rubric?
But we need only ask: are not the motivating feelings of love and compassion pleasant? Doesn’t it feel good –for the people who do- to volunteer or care for a child? People doing such good whether within a public setting or a family setting are doing so…because it feels good, hence our description of such acts being ‘doing some good’.
Sifting through the entire array of human activity to show how each and every thing that we do fits into this rubric wouldn’t simply be tedious, but it’s impossible. What’s more important than such a catalog is to dig a little deeper and ask:
Why… can all of human behavior fall into a combination of these two categories? What exists at the core of these categories that makes them so universal for human affairs?
These two rubrics of pleasure and sexiness are actually masks for a process that exists at a much deeper level in nature.
This is the process of connection and efficiency.
Sexiness impels us towards connection. This should be obvious. . . because it’s intended to be quite literal. Sexiness directly refers to the act of sex which is about as connected as two people can get in the wide scheme of genes and reproduction.
The second one is a bit more shrouded:
Pleasure pushes us towards efficient connections.
To illustrate this deeper layer, it’s helpful to leave the world of human affairs in order to see how connection and efficiency operate on a basic natural level devoid of sex and pleasure.
Think of the way a tree’s roots and leaves grow out in all sorts of directions. They are looking for connections that will help sustain the life of the tree. Each tree inevitably has a different shape which is optimal for that particular place and climate.
Lightning functions in a similar way. If you watch an ultra slow video of lightning, you’ll see that there’s actually a root-like structure that reaches out from a cloud. Each ‘root’ of lightning is reaching out, looking for a connection. And when one of those tendrils finally touches something, Boom. That’s when you actually see the lightning. That one path represents the most efficient path that was discovered when that pulse of energy reached out from the cloud. Of all the possible tendrils that were searching for a connection, the lightning we see ends up being the shortest of all of them that actually leads to a connection.
Now, to be sure, as with the lightning, so with the tree. Their specific configurations in any given point might not be the most efficient, but it’s the most efficient that could be found by natural processes in that situation.
We can see a similar lack of effectiveness in human biology as its effected by modern culture. We are biologically hardwired by evolution to seek out and consume sweet, energy-dense foods. This is because way back in the day when these sweet, energy-dense foods were rare in the natural world, they represented the most efficient way to get energy into the body that can then be devoted to other things like being sexy, and this is why chocolate ice cream is so pleasurable. It’s our old biological hardware that is trying to optimize for energy-efficiency. But of course in the modern world this has now backfired, especially when it comes to sexiness, and we are left with the constant struggle towards the icky end of the pleasure-pain spectrum.
Now, to bridge the conscious human in this discussion with the paradoxically lifeless lightning and the living tree, it’s interesting to note an experiment that was done with slime mold.
Yes, slime mold.
In this experiment (which can be viewed here), small concentrations of food were arranged as dots and laid out in accordance to the shape of the Tokyo city area. The slime mold was let loose and it instantly started to spread out in all the directions it could. Kind of like that root system of lightning that spreads out from a cloud, or the roots of a tree. When the slime mold came across one of these food-dots, it would grow using that nutrition and reach out further. Once the slime mold had discovered all of the food-dots, it then reformed itself to strengthen the connections between the dots so that the entire organism could take advantage of the food in the most efficient way possible.
And you know what the connections of this slime mold ended up looking like?
It looked exactly like the Tokyo Railway system.
The slime mold reaches out in all directions, makes advantageous connections and then optimized those connections to be as efficient as possible. Just as the engineers for the Tokyo railway system designed it so that travel between all Tokyo areas was as efficient as possible.
Something deeply embedded in nature seems to have a search algorithm built into it that tries to create connections like these and then these connections get optimized for efficiency.
In a basic sense this is how the brain works and learns. It forms connections between neurons and then strengthens those connections by myelinating the axon that connects the two and this myelination makes the connection faster and more efficient.
Is it surprising that this algorithm of ‘search & optimize’ is noticeable on different levels of emergence, from something as elemental as lightning right up to the human level of behavior?
Granted, we as a species are a giant mess, and we are far from having optimized what it is we are actually on track to do, but the process is clearly there. Our technology is all about connection, and it gets faster everyday. Indeed, we’ve found a way to create connections faster than ever before. No need to randomly encounter some unknown tribe in order to make a new connection. Now we can just google who we think we might want to talk to, or scroll through twitter and tinder profiles.
It’s no surprise either that along with this hyper-charged connection comes a rambunctious cacophony of opinion and language that simultaneously has a better grip on what’s actually going on in reality and also seems perpetually at risk of floating off into it’s own fantasy land.
We’d do best to remember that everyone is looking at a different side of an infinity cube, that has a different side for everyone, and on it scrawled a different word.
When we hear people say things that seem nonsensical or insane. Instead of just shouting out what you see, it’s actually our only opportunity to pause and wonder:
where are they coming from and how are they seeing things to make them say that?
This pause and question doesn’t just create the potential for a new connection, it’s also how we optimize the connections we already have.
*Charlie Munger’s exact order of sentences was rearranged slightly in order to make the ideas more succinct.
This episode relies heavily on Episode 505: The Endless Arbitrage of Language and Episode 13: Lightning and Trees. And to be sure, for a full context to frame this episode, be sure to peruse all 394,835 words that currently make up the Tinkered Thinking platform. It would also do well to stay tuned as the new ideas in this episode get fleshed out in future episodes and optimized.
This episode was also heavily influenced by S.I. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action which you can buy through the link on the Tinkered Thinking reading list, or below.