Observation

A couple years ago, one of my good friends wrote a book called Vector Rising under the pen name Cole Carver. The book is a science fiction thriller about a character who is able to see a little bit ahead of normal people. The idea for Carver stemmed from the science behind the way the brain processes motion and images. By the time an image has made its way from the source, through our eyes, and into our head, we are seeing a little bit into the past. We see just a fraction into the past, not a huge amount but a real amount, and our brains make up for this by predicting what is going on around us, especially with any movement, and using that prediction to create what we see.

 

A line from the book reads, “While science depends on experimentation, I’m here today to talk to you about a different core element: observation. If you recall, it’s the first step in our most sacred methodology. Before we make our guesses and r un our tests, we must first figure out what it is we see.” This was dialogue from one character to another, but I think it is actually a great point for all of us in our lives. We assume we know what it is we see around us and we believe the things we observe about the world, but frequently what we see really isn’t really what is happening. Biases can creep into the way we interpret certain events, we can mis-remember things that took place (or didn’t take place), and we can see a dress as a different color than what it really is. Our observations are not always as good as we would believe, and it is important that we think critically about what we see and try to gain as many perspectives on important things as possible.

 

If we start running through the world too quickly and are in too much of a hurry to trust our observations, we risk making mistakes that can have real world consequences. We may see ourselves as infallible and as deserving a new car, a promotion, or a super hot spouse. Our observation is only on the amazing parts of who we are because we have chosen to be blind to reality by hiding away our faults. The guesses we derive from our false sense of self can lead us to make arrogant decisions and to behave in ways that put down other people. This is dangerous not just for ourselves, but for the people we may interact with as well.

 

Ultimately, we should spend less time assuming that we know the world based on what we see, and more time trying to understand if what we see is an accurate reflection of the world. We should be quicker to assume that we don’t see the whole picture, and spend more time trying to broaden our field of view and less time trying to perform experiments that confirm our guesses. Instead of being so certain that we see the world the right way, we should ask others how our views fall short, and we should adjust them to have better observations of what is really taking place in the world.

The Bounds of Opinion

“Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic. Nature is indifferent to humans. The world exists and life exists upon it, but the world doesn’t seem worried about what life flourishes, how it flourishes, and what life does. It simply carries on and life must react to what happens across nature.

 

In our lives we have an extreme number of desires, of thoughts about good and bad, and of preferences for one outcome over another. All of our desires, our fears, and our thoughts lead to expectations about how we think the world should be, but nature is not aware of our beliefs of how it should operate. We bring to the world a complex set of ideas, and they are continually batted around as if they were meaningless.

 

Seneca’s quote above is about recognizing that there is no reason that the world should be a certain way, and there is nothing that makes the world conform to the beliefs and views that we have. There is an unlimited number of ways to want the world to be, and while in a sense the way we view the world determines how it seems to us, there is something that seems to be separate about the world. It operates on its own, even if our views and decisions make it seem to behave one way or another. We can work toward different outcomes, we can strive for something different, and we can attempt to actualize our preferences, but ultimately it is all just opinion built upon an indifferent world.

 

This is not a nihilistic sentiment or something we should feel discouraged by. What it means is that the universe exists and we have come to exist within it with the ability to manipulate and change parts of it. We have great opportunity to use what the universe contains and we are limited by only our imagination, the laws of physics, and the initial conditions of the big bang. We can’t change the laws of physics or the initial conditions of the big bang, but we can always change our imagination and thoughts, and we can always learn more about our universe and what is possible within an indifferent nature.

 

Bringing this down to an individual level, we can take pressure off ourselves by recognizing that there is no perfect way that we or anything else ought to be. The universe does not care. We are matter that is cognizant of its own existence and from our self-recognition flows the ability to examine and perceive so much more than just the matter within ourselves. From us flows the ability to create the reality we see around us and to create the opinions, thoughts, ideas, and preferences that we bring to the world. It is up to us individually to recognize the opportunity we have and to act accordingly.

Avoid Ascribing Guilt or Menace

I have been engaged with Stoicism for several years now and even though I work on recognizing my thoughts and reactions to the world around me, I am still frequently surprised by how quickly I can assume bad intent in another person and view others as terrible people when they do something I don’t like. Driving down the freeway and having someone speed past me, having to walk past a person smoking a cigarette, and even just having someone stand in front of the item I need at the grocery store are a few examples of relatively meaningless situations where I have found myself ascribing negative qualities and traits to other people who inconvenience me. My mind seizes the opportunity to say something bad about this other person and begins to tell me about how I am superior to them. It is only once I have realized that I have started to do this that I can pull my brain back and recognize that I am no better than anyone else and that these people did not do anything with the intent to harm, frustrate, or inconvenience me.

 

Colin Wright has a quote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “It’s worth remembering that we cannot know what’s going on in another person’s head. We’re far more likely to see a stranger’s actions through our own lens than to attempt to look through theirs. When a stranger does something we perceive to be wrong, we’re likely to imbue that action with malice, whereas they might only see a harmless act. Our biases and prejudices color our perception of the world, and recognizing this, and working it into our math when we’re attempting to discern what’s happening, is on of the better ways to avoid ascribing guilt or menace to situations that are honest mistakes or blatant misinterpretations.”

 

For the most part, we live our own lives within a world filled with lots of gray. I don’t mean that the world is literally the color gray, unless maybe you live in a city like Seattle, but rather we operate within a set of rules and constantly bend them when it is convenient for us to do so. Our deviations from rules might be harmless, we might know that no one will notice so we won’t get caught, or we might tell ourselves we are breaking this rule just a little bit this one time so its no big deal. We like rules with flexibility where we can get away if we do the wrong thing if it doesn’t feel too bad and we dislike rules where there is no room for discretion (thanks to Robin Hanson for this). We see ourselves and the negative things we do in a more positive light (most of us) while viewing strangers and people who annoy us (like our younger siblings or neighbors) in a more negative light.

 

Constantly telling ourselves that we are good but that everyone else is bad is not just an inaccurate way to approach the world, but it is also bad for our health and bad for society. We know that we bend the rules all the time and rationalize our behaviors and decisions. We know that we spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves and how our decisions benefit us with little thought for others. We should keep this in mind and not be so quick to ascribe poor qualities to other people and we should recognize that they are thinking about themselves and not thinking about directly offending or inconveniencing us. Spending all our time being upset about others, channeling outrage to make ourselves feel superior, and looking for everyone else’s flaws is going to spike our stress responses and cause health problems. Letting this urge go will help us live more healthy lives, and will also help us connect with these people who frustrate us. By getting out of our own heads, we can connect with others in ways that might actually get them to also be more thoughtful and to behave better, or at least annoy and inconvenience us a little less.

A Creative Skill

When I sat down to read Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy, I expected to hear about the importance of compassion and humility and to read anecdotes about why we should try to avoid self-aggrandizement, but I didn’t expect to get a quick lesson in creativity. Holiday includes a short section in which he describes leaders taking a moment of solitude, away from the societies, groups, and lives that they lead to and connects the creativity these temporary retreats generate back to our egos. What we get when we set off into a quite place away from society, Holiday suggests, is a chance to calm the ego and step away from the need for praise.

 

Holiday writes the following about what happens when we get away from society and our daily lives, “By removing the ego – even temporarily – we can access what’s left standing in relief. By widening our perspective, more comes into view.”

 

The ego, he says, narrows our views and focus. It zooms our attention in on ourselves, ignores the outside world, cuts out the things we are not very familiar with, shortens our the timescales we think through, and ultimately makes us less creative. When everything is about us, we operate with only one true perspective shaping our lives. We will constantly ask the world what has the greatest return for me in this very moment and what will get me the most attention right now?

 

Holiday continues, “Creativity is a matter of receptiveness and recognition. This cannot happen if you’re convinced the world revolves around you.” One of the things I wrote about earlier is the way that living for our ego makes us see the world through a modified lens where everything is about us. We don’t see reality clearly and instead create a story all about what we have, what we can gain, what we think others are stealing from us, and what we might lose or miss out on if we don’t spend every moment maximizing for ourselves. This creates a trap where we fail to see the flaws in our plans and fail to see trends that don’t align with what we want to see. Being humble on the other hand and accepting that we need help seeing beyond ourselves, will open our perspective and allow other people to give us information that will expand our perspective. Thinking creatively is difficult when you think you already have all the answers and already see things as creatively as possible. The ego doesn’t see a need to expand its already awesome point of view and likely actively hides perspectives that are critical of what we do and produce. If, on the other hand, we can push the ego aside and move forward in a way that is not all about us, we can see new opportunities, new connections, and new possibilities that we previously would have missed.

Turn Off the Ego and Learn

There is always something we can learn and something we can better understand. No matter how smart we think we are or how smart we feel, we can always adopt new perspectives, work to see things from new points of view, and begin to see the world in a more clear way. Challenging ourselves to see the world beyond the perspective we are accustomed to or beyond the perspective that is comfortable can open up new possibilities and help us understand the people in our lives who we would otherwise find puzzling. We never fully understand everything there is about something, and even if we feel we are a true master in a field, we likely don’t have a full grasp of how exactly our field connects with adjacent fields. Adopting this attitude however, cannot be done if we don’t clear our ego.

 

When we allow our ego to take over and tell us that we are smart and have it all figured out, we cease to learn. The ego wants us to believe that our perspective is the best, that our way of thinking is the only truly valuable way of thinking, that the contradictions in our thoughts are not contradictions at all, but rational decisions that others just don’t see clearly. The ego doesn’t want to be challenged, it doesn’t want the boat to be rocked, and it wants us to be morally and intellectually superior to others.

 

When we abandon this ego drive, we can be more open to the world around us and better learn as we move through an ever changing world. By being more humble about just how much we know and understand about the world, we can become more genuine people who better appreciate those around us. Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy. He writes, “at ever step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn – and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.”

 

Everyone has both received and given the advice to be a sponge when you start a new career, hobby, athletic routine, or cooking class. We tell young people to learn as much as they can from those who are successful and from those who have been in their shoes. For some reason though, we seem to reach a point where being a sponge for knowledge fades away. Holiday would argue that our ego has a big part to do with why we stop focusing on learning from others and from experiences. We get to a point where we feel that we have become the wise elder, the successful person, the one with all the knowledge, and our job becomes teaching others and not learning. But continual learning is crucial if we want to continually adjust to the world around us, maintain the success we build, or even if we just want to stay engaged in the world and have meaningful relationships with those around us. If we can accept that we always have more to learn or that we always need refreshers on basic lessons from our past, we can better connect with the world and approach people and situations with a better perspective focused on gaining more understanding rather than showing how much we already think we know.

Time For Ourselves

Early in the book The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh, a story is recounted and includes a conversation between two people about time. The story specifically looks at how we think about our time and the story we tell ourselves about our time. Jumping right into the middle, the story goes:

 

“Then Allen said, “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.” The story continues,
“But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”

 

I really like this story because it shows how much our understanding of time is influenced  by the stories we tell ourselves. There truly is not anything that breaks up the segments of time that we have throughout our days. There is no real barrier that we transition through as we go from one hour to the next and even real demarcated time shifts, like the shift from day to night, are gradual without an exact point where one can say, we have officially moved from day to night. With our day, we simply transition out of daylight into twilight, and then from twilight into night, and at a certain point we can all agree it is night time, but not at a specific identifiable point. What is more, the time of day at which these transitions occur constantly changes, not adhering to the stories well tell ourselves about 5 p.m., 7:30 p.m. or 9 p.m.

 

Recently I have been focusing on the stories we tell ourselves and the narratives we create for ourselves as we live our lives. I am fascinated by the fact that the reality we experience hinges on the interpretations and experiences we have within that reality. We construct narratives and stories that fit what we want to be true and live within these stories. Time is just another example of how the stories we tell impact the way we experience the world. Our views and perspectives of time take something that is truly concrete and fundamental in universe (even if not fully understood), the phenomenological ordering of events, and creates stories and structured ways of perceiving it.

 

Allan is simply pulling back the stories he tells himself as he goes about his days. He has recognized that there is nothing that determines that something is time for him versus time for anyone else. There is simply the moment and his experience and consciousness. That time is his as long as he does not try to force the time to conform to a specific narrative. Recognizing the power that narratives hold in our lives gives us a chance to feel more free as we recognize which parts of our day and existence are built from concrete facts and empiricism and which parts are built by our interpretation, imagination, and the stories we tell ourselves about what everything means.

Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of my Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform and shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and at best develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.

 

Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks as physicists try to understand quantum mechanics within the framework of physics laid out by Einstein and relativity. Throughout her book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts within their own physics studies. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring this idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea is exactly the idea of social construction that I touched on in the opening note, but Gefter quotes a note in one of wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics,” which sounds a bit like social construction to me as someone who studies public policy.

 

Social Constructionism is a theory from the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions in physics described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions such as how gravity works.

 

We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs the way we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspectives matter, when it comes to politics, science, and even physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to model, study, and experiment with our lives and the universe.

Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of a Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform ad shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.

 

Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks preventing us from linking Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. Throughout her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts on their own. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring an idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea exactly the idea of social construction in politics and governance that I touched on in the opening note. Gefter quotes a note in one of Wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics.”

 

Social Constructionism is a theory from  the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our problem solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions about the workings of the universe.

 

We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs how we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspective matters, when it comes to science and physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to study and experiment with the universe. Keeping social constructionism in mind also helps us understand why we choose to study certain aspects of science and why we present our findings in the ways that we do. We may never be able to get to a purely rational place in either science or politics (though science is certainly much closer), but understanding and knowing where social construction plays a part will help us be more observant and honest about what we say, study, believe, and discover.

Cutting Through

The truly great thing about physics is that it is universal. Literally. What we discover about physics here in the United States is true in South Africa, and what is discovered in South Africa can be learned just as well in Vietnam, and it all holds true on Jupiter or in the Andromeda Galexy. Physics is based in mathematics and repeatable experiments and it can be understood anywhere. It takes our perceptions and it boils them down into their most simplistic forms, tests them, repeats the test, and then determines what is real and what is unsupported. This means that physics has the ability to help us understand things in incredible new ways. We can better understand the universe and how it is held together, but only if we can study the physics and step beyond ourselves to understand what the tests, experiments, and math are trying to explain to us.

For Amanda Gefter, this is one of the best parts of physics. It takes our expectations, our assumptions, and what we want to be true, and completely ignores it. A good scientist, during their search for what is real and what is not, is able to cut through the noise of our expectations, beliefs, and desires to see the science underneath, holding things together.

Gefter writes, “That was what I loved about physics—that moment of pure surprise when you suddenly realize that what you had thought was one thing is really something else, or that two things that seemed so different are really two ways of looking at the very same thing. It was the perennial comfort that comes from discovering that the world is not remotely what it seems.”

By cutting through the noise of humanity, physics helps us to see the world more thoroughly. The world and the universe are not the way they simply appears to us from our perspective on Earth. Much of how we interpret and understand the universe is through what we see, but so much of the universe does not emit electromagnetic radiation or react with light in any way. How we perceive the universe depends on our point of view, and of our experience as human beings living on our planet. What physics does, is move beyond our experience of the universe to tell us how things are at any point in the universe, not just on planet Earth today. If we accept the world as it appears to us, then we somehow cease to move forward, and we begin to live in a story that never completely captures the reality we experience around us. We begin to live in ways that don’t add up, that put us at the center and don’t allow for the types of evolution and adaptation that we need to live in this universe responsibly. Physics takes the stories that we tell and re-writes them, adjusting the language to be the language of mathematics, giving us a new perspective from which to tell our story.

Interdependence

Senator Cory Booker starts the epilogue to his book United with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, “Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency.” Throughout his book he focuses on the connections that everyone in the United States shares simply by being an American. We are connected to those generations that came before us and the decisions they made, and we are connected to the generations that will come after us and those who will live with the world we create. Our lives are dependent on one another in ways that we cannot always imagine or understand, but when we focus on our connections we can begin to see how important it is to live intentionally and recognize how our choices impact others.

 

In the United States self reliance and personal responsibility are emphasized far more than interdependence or social reliance. When we talk about success we are quick to look at the ways that we have achieved greatness on our own and we are quick to provide examples of  individuals producing great value and reaping great reward. It is our individual spirit and our industriousness that we look at when we think about how we succeed. The situation and the environment are often left out of the equation in favor of the obstacles we had to overcome and the smart decisions we had to make. When we look at what a successful person is, we focus completely on the person, assuming that the person is great entirely due to their own actions and hard work. This translates back into the world in which we live, and we look at successful and famous people and assume there is something special about them or that they are worthy of praise because they achieved wealth, status, and fame through hard work and an innovative spirit. In some way, we elevate their moral standing, their intelligence, and their character simply because we see them as successful.

 

When thinking about failure on the other hand, we find many excuses that push responsibility away from us, onto the situation, onto other people, and onto random events. Our personal responsibility seems to diminish as soon as things are not going our way. We hold self-sufficiency as our goal, and push toward it, and any failure seems to indicate that we are somehow less than an ideal version of ourselves, so we find ways in which our failure or lack of success is not an indication of our self-sufficiency. Yet at the same time, when we see people who ask for money, or are out of shape and are not as financially well of as we are, we blame the individual and begin assuming that they have deficiencies in character and work habit that have led to their less than ideal situation.

 

A more healthy world view would be one similar to Gandhi’s. We would recognize that our success is not simply a matter of our own great decisions and actions, but rather the consequence of our choices within an environment that in many ways shaped the actions and options available to us. Our success or our failure would be dependent on the lives of those who came before us and the systems, norms, and culture they left behind. Shifting how we think about where self-responsibility fits with success can change the way we think of others, helping us see value in all people, and not just those who have achieved notoriety and wealth.

 

When we step outside the personal responsibility bubble we can begin to see that our actions and decisions matter a lot, not just for our own success but for the well being of everyone. We can begin to see that we had assistance from people and factors that we could not control or predict, and it helps us to become more connected with those around us.