Our Devious Minds

We now realize,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “that our brains aren’t just hapless and quirky – they’re devious. They intentionally hide information from us, helping us fabricate plausible pro-social motives to act as cover stories for our less savory agendas. As Trivers puts it: “At ever single state [of processing information] from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others – the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is.

 

Recently I have been pretty fascinated by the idea that our minds don’t do a good job of perceiving reality. The quote above shows many of the points where our minds build a false sense of reality for us and where our perceptions and understanding can go astray. It is tempting to believe that we observe and recognize an objective picture of the world, but there are simply too many points where our mental conceptualization of the world can deviate from an objective reality (if that objective reality ever even exists).

 

What I have taken away from discussions and books focused on the way we think and the mistakes our brain can make is that we cannot always trust our mind. We won’t always remember things correctly and we won’t always see things as clearly as we believe. What we believe to be best and correct about the world may not be accurate. In that sense, we should doubt our beliefs and the beliefs of others constantly. We should develop processes and systems for identifying information that is reasonable and question information that aligns with our prior beliefs as much as information that contradicts our prior beliefs. We should identify key principles that are most important to us, and focus on those, rather than focus on specific and particular instances that we try to understand by filling in answers from generalizations.

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.

Pessoa on Politicians

Fernando Pessoa was a Portugese writer in the 1930’s. I’m not sure if he was really involved with politics at all, but in The Book of Disquiet he had a short passage that I think describes politicians well. He writes,

 

“The government of the world begins in ourselves. It is not the sincere who govern the world but neither is it the insincere. It is governed by those who manufacture in themselves a real sincerity by artificial and automatic means; that sincerity constitutes their strength and it is that which shines out over the less false sincerity of the others. A marked talent for self-deception is the statesman’s foremost quality. Only poets and philosophers have a practical vision of  the world since only to them is given the gift of having no illusions. to see clearly is to be unable to act.”

 

This post is not one to say negative things about politicians. Instead, it is a reflection on how humans behave. I want to focus in on the stories we tell ourselves and how we view reality. I think Pessoa is correct in his assessment of politicians. Sincere is defined, by a quick Google search, as “free from pretense or deceit, genuine feelings.” Politicians have many things on their mind at any given time and it is likely that they are never truly influenced by solely their own genuine feelings. At the same time, however, it is probably not fair to say that they never have true and meaningful feelings or beliefs. They likely try to hide any selfish motivations from even themselves, in an attempt to have pure motives for their decisions. But  they are not completely deceitful (in general) and insincere. They are humans, trying to do what they think is right, popular, and will bring good outcomes for society and for themselves personally. Their lives are a story, and they are constantly trying to write a good ending.

 

If you think about it, the assessment Pessoa makes of politicians is really just an assessment of humans in general. We all live like politicians, trying to craft a story that seems genuine and sincere about our lives and who we are, even if our actions, decisions, and behaviors are partially (or almost completely) self-serving. The politician is just an easy example of how humans behave in ways that appear contradictory. We should recognize that men are not angles, but we are (in most instances) not complete devils either. We have moments of genuine sincerity, but we are also capable of boundless deception. If we are careful and look at the world very clearly, we can see this play out in our politicians and in ourselves.

Our Perceptions of the World

In a diary entry dated 04/08/1931 in Fernando Pessoa’s posthumously published book The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa writes, “For us everything lies in our concept of the world; changing our concept of the world means changing our world, that is, the world itself, since it will never be anything other than how we perceive it.” There are many things in this world that make assumptions about, and we never truly know if our assumptions are correct. But what information we take in, and how we use that information and interpret it, shapes the world we construct and the assumptions we attach to the world.

 

I really like this quote, especially at this time, because I have been thinking about consciousness after having listened to a few podcast episodes from Rob Reid’s show, After On. Reid has had a few guests on his show who have talked about consciousness and the challenges in fully understanding what is happening in our brains. We don’t know exactly where consciousness comes from and whether it is within the brain or something that sits on top of the brain. We don’t know what it is that allows our brain matter and nervous system to become conscious and we don’t know where consciousness stops, whether it ends with dogs and ferrets or if it continues all the way down to bees, ants, or plants.

 

Beyond questions of consciousness, we have questions about the information that our body is able to take in and process. We also have questions about what information we actually become aware of with all the the information that is available for us to perceive. We know that we can’t smell as well as a dog, we can’t hear the same frequencies as a bat, and we can’t sense the earth’s magnetic field the way a bird does. Bees can see a greater range of the light spectrum than we can see, but we at least have eyes which can see much better than starfish which can only pick up on whether it is light above them or not. For each animal, including humans, the range of possible senses and information that can be taken in is called the umwelt. A German word to describe the experiences of the world for that animal.

 

All this brings me back to Pessoa’s quote. From a pure physics level, it is easy to see that our thinking and understanding of the world is limited by the physics of the universe and by the information we can take in form our surroundings. The world we see and know, in some sense, is not the whole world. Pessoa is correct to say that our world is defined by the way we perceive it.

 

But what Pessoa meant in his quote was not so much about physics and the limitations of the human body to sense and experience the world. How we think about the world constructs the reality we live within. The narratives and stories we come up with describe ourselves, define the society we live in, and explain what we do are the things that make up our reality. We can be wrong about these perceptions, like when we hear someone near-by laugh and assume they are laughing about us. We should be aware of the thoughts and narratives we create about the world and we should be willing to question them. We should work to have the most clear picture of the world possible, always understanding that there is more happening than we can ever know, and always remembering that how we perceive the world will determine the reality we see in front of us.

Selective Attention

I listened to an episode of the After On podcast this last week, and the guest, Dr. Don Hoffman, suggested that our brains did not evolve to help us understand reality, but evolved to help us survive, which often did not require that our ancestors have the most accurate view of reality but instead had the perceptions necessary to avoid lions, work as a tribe, and pick healthy berries. What we see when we look around us is only a small fraction of the world, our eyes are only able to perceive a rather narrow range of electromagnetic radiation (light). With the fact that our brains did not evolve to give us the most clear picture of reality and with our inability to fully perceive all of reality, we must remember that there are reasons to be skeptical of the thoughts produced by our brain.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, author Colin Wright discusses the outcomes of our brains cognitive shortcomings. He writes, “This tendency to pay more attention to the seeming unlikely events that happen to and around us is called “selective attention.” Our brains have a bias toward patterns, and ignore so called uninteresting data…” Wright suggests that this is part of the reason our brains our so bad at statistical thinking as I described yesterday. Statistics is hard because we selectively pick out certain things as important and have a distorted memory of the world based on what we happened to see and notice. Wright continues describing what this means for us, “Which in turn result in our finding meaning in what is almost certainly meaningless…familiarity and feeling of significance is merely the consequence of our brains wigging out over the perceived connection, due to its pattern-finding predilections. Because that’s what it does.”

 

When we recognize that we did not evolve to develop a perfect view of what is happening around us and that our brains only selectively record a small chunk of reality, we can begin to think about how approach the world. We know our brains look for patterns and behave quickly, but that the patterns the brain picks out might not be fully correct or meaningful. We don’t have to eat Pringles every time our team is in the playoffs, because we are aware that our brain is making a false connection between us eating specific chips and our favorite team winning based on a perception that doesn’t really exist. What I am ultimately getting at is that our brains can invent realities that seem reasonable, but are based on cognitive errors, selective attention, and don’t actually align with the physical reality of the universe. We make sense out of meaningless things around us and start to attach symbolic importance to things that should not have any importance in our lives.

 

This distorted reality may not be a problem at an individual level with how any of us move through our lives. No one is going to care too much if you believe you need to drink a specific coffee every morning or sit in a specific spot, but as this mode of thinking scales up to a societal level, we must recognize that beliefs resulting from cognitive bias and error can lead to a world that doesn’t operate equitably for all members of society. Public policy must be grounded in the best empirical science and data that we can collect (even if our interpretation of the data is always going to be imperfect) so that we can distribute our finite resources in a reasonable way, and we must cut through our false narratives to avoid stigmatizing groups and discriminating against people who see the world differently from us.

Crafting Stories

Our brains are awesome at pattern recognition. It helps us drive down the freeway and know when traffic is going to come to a stop, it helps us identify fresh bananas and avoid overly ripe ones, and it gives us the ability to do complex mathematics. The brain evolved to recognize and identify patterns in nature so that we could adapt and adjust to the world around us and live in societies with other people and their pattern recognizing brains.

 

Today however, our brains’ pattern recognition can get us in trouble. In our daily lives we encounter a lot of randomness. We have a lot of experiences and face a lot of situations that truly don’t have any meaning behind them, but just happened to happen. Whether it was our toast getting knocked off the counter, seeming to hit every red light on our way to work, or someone not texting us back, we have a lot of daily experiences that our brain will attempt to find patterns between to find meaning where there isn’t any (or at least isn’t any substantial meaning).  Being aware of our brain’s pattern recognition engine and its desire to create a story between random events is important if we want to be able to react to the world in a reasonable way and to draw reasonable conclusions about the world around us.

 

Ryan Holiday writes about the danger of creating unrealistic stories from the standpoint of our own egos in his book Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes, “Crafting stories out of past events is a very human impulse. It’s also dangerous and untrue. Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance. It turns our life into a story – and turns us into caricatures…” Holiday was writing about the way we look at success in the lives of other people and the way we think about where we are going and how we have gotten to where we are today. We often see a clear path looking backward that really didn’t exist when the journey began. We likely fail to see the doubt, the uncertainty, and the luck that just happened to bounce along and open a new path for ourselves or someone else. We create a narrative that highlights our good decisions, downplays our errors, and makes our journey through life seem like an inevitable trajectory and not like a rocky forest path that just happened to wind up where it did and not someplace else.

 

Its likely that none of us will stop telling our life in the form of a story or that we will ever be able to turn our brain’s pattern recognition engine off to stop the stories, but we need to be aware of the fact that we do this. Our perceptions of the world will always be limited, which means the stories we tell will never truly represent the reality of the world around us. We also have strong incentives to tell a story that gives meaning to things without any meaning, like the person who cut us off on the freeway leading to the accident was clearly an immoral person who victimized me, the innocent and pure driver who didn’t deserve such misfortune. Our stories will also likely create positive groups that we belong to and out-groups that are somehow less virtuous than our group. Our stories will feature us as prime actors driving our life forward, when we know that sometimes we just bump into good fortune or receive an opportunity without truly doing anything to deserve the opportunity. Ultimately, our stories are likely to be tools to inflate our ego and our status, are likely to jumble together patterns that the brain perceived from nothing, and to include only slivers of reality from our singular perspective. The stories are not real, so we should question them and be aware of when we are trying to make decisions based on the story of our lives that we tell ourselves.

Our Ego Creates a Story

An egomaniac is someone who is too overconfident in their own abilities, believes they are more worthy of praise than they actually are, and generally thinks too highly of themselves. What they believe about themselves and the reality of their skills and abilities is in a state of misalignment. The ego creates a false narrative about overcoming great hurdles, about being incredibly important in the world, and about achieving incredible successes. While everyone has undoubtedly faced many hurdles, is important in their own world, and has achieved some measure of success, the ego inflates all of these measures and creates a story that does not truly match reality.

 

“When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real,” writes Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. Holiday’s quote is meaningful for me because I often focus on the stories we tell ourselves and how disjointed those stories can be relative to our own reality. When we allow our ego to run uncontrolled, we start living in a world that does not exist and the decisions and choices we make are less sound. We filter the world and our experiences through the falsehoods of our story, and this can have negative impacts in our own lives and the lives of others.

 

Holiday generally takes a stoic approach to the world, following in the traditions of Marcus Aurelius and other stoic thinkers. Through self-awareness, Holiday encourages us to replace ego with humility and confidence. Looking at the stories we tell ourselves and being honest about who we are, where we are, and what we have accomplished on our own versus with the aid and assistance of others, helps us to have a more honest conversation with ourselves about how amazing we think we are. When we can get beyond these stories, we can start to recognize the advantages we that helped make us who we are. This allows us to start to see the ways in which we hype ourselves up in an attempt to ever increase our own status. By shedding our ego and the stories that go with it, we can also see other people more clearly, and hopefully be less judgmental of others and more open to connect with them and help them in the ways that other people have undoubtedly assisted us. This cannot be done if we chose to live in our ego bubble, constantly reassured of our greatness through false narratives that we create to feel good about ourselves.

Distortions of the Ego

Yesterday I wrote about ego. I looked deeply at how we see ego and how ego manifests in our lives. This post is about the ways that ego shapes our understanding and approach to the world. In my previous post I argued that our egos arise when we begin to believe the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. We tell ourselves we are more important than we truly are, that we have more skills and abilities than we actually do, and that we have some intrinsic value that sets us apart from everyone else.

 

Author Ryan Holiday further describes ego in his book, Ego is the Enemy, by writing, “It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.” The important thing to consider here is that having a big ego gives us a false sense of reality. Rather than taking an objective view of the world around us and our place in that larger world, we risk seeing a distortion that we want to see, and not a reality that truly exists in front of us.

 

It is easy to see how our ego can inflate our view of our position in the world. We make ourselves feel more important than we are and assume that people are truly interested in what we say or do. This leads to us moving through our lives as though we were performing for others, rather than just living for ourselves. An inflated ego also risks the potential of allowing us to believe that what we think is always right, and that we have the world easily sorted out. With a large ego, we can flatten debate and reduce the world the black and white, making it easy for us to cast judgement on the world while praising ourselves for being so smart and insightful.

 

All of this is to say that our ego gives us a false view of the world around us and how we relate to that world. If we let our ego go unchecked, we can easily begin to adopt views and understandings of the world that promote ourselves and our positions in the world at the expenses of others. It is easy to discount the concerns of others when we are focused on ourselves and focused on always obtaining and achieving more personally so that we can continue to feed our hungry ego. This is why it is so important to build self-awareness into our lives and to be aware of the stories we tell ourselves to prop up our ego.

Attachment to the False View of Self

When we try to compartmentalize reality and split our experiences into separate categories, we end up with a view of the universe that is incomplete and incorrect. Everything that happens is interconnected, and how we experience the world at one moment is influenced by our experiences of the past and expectations for the future. The time of day, how much we have eaten, and the temperature all shape the way we experience and interpret the universe. We are unavoidably connected to the matter of the universe, and we are truly matter observing other matter.

 

When we think about ourselves, we put ourselves apart from the universe. We view the person that we are as separate from the natural phenomena of the universe, as someone who experiences reality with a rational mind that views the things happening around us. We create a story about our selves that helps us understand the world we live in.

 

However, this is not reality. We cannot stand ourselves apart from the universe and we cannot look at ourselves as individual, objective, observers of the universe as though we are immune to the happenings and occurrences around us. Through meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other Buddhist monks through time, have come to recognize this problem with the way that we think about ourselves. They call this problem the false view of self. A view that creates a self as a rational actor moving through the world in control of ones perception, experiences, and outcomes. This false view can be dangerous and is formed on unfounded views of reality. As Hanh writes, “Attachment to the false view of self means belief in the presence of unchanging entities which exist on their own.”

 

What Hanh and Buddhists found through meditation, Amanda Gefter learned from the study of Physics, particularly from the discoveries of John Wheeler. In a previous post of mine, I wrote about a quote from Gefter where she explained that the universe can only be viewed from the inside, where everything is changing. Trying to view the world from the outside, from a Gods-Eye-View, violates general relativity and breaks the physics of the universe.

 

The view of self that we adopt as we move through the world (especially in the United States) is inconsistent with the view of the self described by monks who noticed their inability to control their mind during meditation. It is also inconsistent with the reality of physics which highlights the challenges of trying to the view the universe as an unchanging object outside the universe. Giving up the concept of self is difficult, but when you remember that there may not be a self, you can let go of stress and pressure to be the person your story is telling you to be. You are connected to the universe and you are a changing being within the universe. Your actions are not your own conscious choices, but the culmination of phenomena occurring within the universe. For me, mindfulness in this area helps me to think about my choices and decisions and react to the universe in a more calm and clear way, even though I am not standing apart from the universe and from forces around me to make the decisions that I make.

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.