I know the difference between model and reality. My father once told me of the time he was in school and the teacher brought in a black box. It had all sorts of levers and wheels and things sticking out of it. Pushing or pulling on one thing would cause a reaction somewhere else. The assignment was to figure out what the internal mechanism of the box looked like. Every student came up with a different answer. Every answer worked. My father understood that theories are useful as long as they describe our results and help us make decisions, but that no one can ever really know the truth for sure. They never found out what was in the box.
I think in the same way. Reality is ultimately unknowable and so our models must be tentative. I am always learning. I love hearing new ideas that challenge my old thinking, but I don’t immediately throw out my old ideas for new ones that can just as easily be challenged by still newer ones. I don’t need to have it all figured out to believe in something. The physicists who first discovered that atoms are made of positive nuclei with detachable electrons didn’t know anything about antimatter or the wave nature of electrons. They still to this day don’t know whether they are better thought of as point particles or as loops of vibrating string. This does not stop them from believing electrons exist.
Our ideas about cosmology have also changed a lot in the past five hundred years. Our ideas about how large the stars are, how far apart they are, how fast they move, whether they move at all, what they are made of, and the nature of the invisible stuff in between them have all changed – sometimes more than once. This does not stop people from believing that stars exist.
In the same way, I don’t have to understand just how God operates to know that “something” is there. I expect to be surprised as I learn new things about the universe. Is God really a trinity? Is he really a male? Is he really omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent? How does he experience time? Does Hell really exist? Do angels really exist? How exactly does a painful world and a loving, omnipotent God coexist? I am open to all possibilities.
For now, having a benevolent intelligence guiding my life is as good a model as any, ready to be refined as new data pours in. Evidence of disasters in the world is no more problematic for my theory than the “vacuum catastrophe” is for quantum mechanics, or the “ultraviolet catastrophe” was for classical mechanics – they still teach the laws of Newton and Maxwell in school because they are precise enough for most applications and using quantum mechanics for everything is unwieldly. That I sometimes act and speak as if I am on my own without any divine help should be no more surprising than it is that scientists switch back and forth between the contradictory models of quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, and general relativity based on the phenomenon under study.
Which models give you hope?
You don’t have to tell me: I know there is less than a one percent chance we are even remotely compatible. I know there is a less than one percent chance you are available. I know there is less than a 0.01 percent chance you will respond. I also know that 99 percent of people in this culture view moving from being complete strangers to being friends to possibly romantic partners in only one day as extremely creepy (or at least inappropriate). This is how I have thought of it when those in the other one percent have pushed me faster than I wanted to go. I also know that being asked out by someone you don’t like is annoying and embarrassing. Therefore, out of respect for others I have traditionally restricted my invitations only to those that I have a genuine basis for thinking would be interested. This requires knowing them pretty well first – which requires a lot of time. I never ask out strangers.
Unfortunately, this policy has kept my pool of candidates very small. In the past thirty-six years, I have asked out exactly four women. The first three turned me down. The fourth initially said yes but then seemed to lose interest. Needless to say, this has led to times of excruciating loneliness. In recent years I have begun to think that I cannot be the only one. There must be women out there somewhere waiting forever to be asked out by someone, but I never do it. For their sakes as much as mine I must take the chance; it isn’t just about me. I’m the most interesting person I know and I love to learn about other interesting people. It is unfair to everyone not to make such an opportunity known. I have no idea if we would work out, but for anyone with a face like yours and with what I’ve already seen of your personality, I had to know for sure. I had to give you the chance. Come exploring with me!
I don’t get bogged down in arguments of semantics. I don’t care whether you call God Yahweh or Allah any more than I care whether you write the circumference of a circle as 2*pi*radius or tau*radius. The math is the same. It is the reality that counts, not what we name it or how we model it. I am not confused by words.
I have observed that most people take sloppy shortcuts with their thinking. They stumble through a foggy world of fuzzy concepts only dimly aware of their surroundings. This happens to me too when I am very tired or when I allow myself to get lazy because I believe myself to be in familiar mental territory and can rely on memory. The effect is so insidious that it happens automatically without my awareness. The only difference between myself and others is one of degree.
I have especially noticed that this effect is much more pervasive among adults than children. It seems that as we age, we encounter fewer and fewer truly novel circumstances as our knowledge increases. Our thinking gets lazier and our focus deteriorates. I used to be able to run across uneven surfaces (such as piles of boulders) at top speed fully aware of the position and momentum of every part of my body. I was fully confident in my capabilities. I either knew I could make the jump or else I knew I couldn’t make the jump; there was very little uncertainty in those days. It mystified me why adults worried so much about me injuring myself. They told me to be careful, but I thought I was being careful! I’m old now. I may have better held on to more of my childhood than most, but the pull of death is irresistible. Children do not know very much, but adults can “know” a great many things that are not true.
I have also noticed that people cannot always pass a Turing test, and adults fail more often than children. A Turing test is the name given to any test designed to discern between computers and conscious beings. Computers act in accordance with their programming without even being aware. Humans can think creatively and choose between options. However, many people are quick to respond with what seem like memorized phrases that don’t quite fit what I said. I sometimes inadvertently use some phrase or word that activates a (usually negative) response from others, but if they had actually heard and understood the grammar of the sentences I used, they would realize their response was unwarranted. Engaging in conversation with these people is indistinguishable from talking with our current AI programs.
In contrast, my perceptions tend to be crisp and clear. I see the “big picture” of how things fit together. Instead of simply memorizing a route based on landmarks, I imagine them in a continuous space that alerts me to where there might be potential shortcuts. I was even better as a child. When reading a storybook describing a sailboat, I knew immediately without having to think about it that blowing on your boat’s sails to make it move will never work if you are standing in the boat at the same time. I had a “sense of things.”
When given information, I usually remember the meaning better than I remember the way it is delivered. I had a hard time doing proofs in math class because I was supposed to justify every step I took, such as citing the commutative property of multiplication to show that A times B is equal to B times A. The problem is that when I hear (or see) A times B or B times A, I don’t think of the language. I think of a “multiplication event” with A and B the participants in no particular order. It is only because English (and all other human language) is linear that we must write (or speak) out this multiplication event as either A times B or B times A. Language is a representation, not the reality.
I’ve always loved to learn and I find interest in a great many subjects. While most people focus on one area of expertise, I try to know a little bit about everything. This is how I am able to see patterns that others miss. I am able to use analogies that relate one field of study to another. I’ve especially always been fascinated by the different schools of thought there are on every subject. I might not know every detail about the mainstream model as the experts do, but I generally know the basic arguments of the alternative models, while most mainstream experts do not. By focusing on the primary relationships between the facts and the conclusions, I am better able than most to cut straight to what is important and see patterns faster even when I might hold less total knowledge of a given subject.
I am often able to cut through the confusion to get to the core essence of an issue and understand what is really happening. I always knew without being told that centrifugal force is actually inertia in disguise, that objects accelerate as they fall, and that lighter objects fall slower only because of air resistance. It has always been obvious to me from watching feathers fall that it is only the air in the way that prevents them from slamming into the ground like pebbles. When it comes to economics and governance, I can clearly see that capitalism is not theft in any reasonable definition of the term, while communism literally is theft. No one had to teach me that. In math, it never bothered me that matrix multiplication broke the rules of commutation because I didn’t think of it as real multiplication. It never bothered me that the angles of triangles in non-Euclidean spaces could add up to over 180 degrees because I didn’t think of them as real triangles.
I also know myself very well. Unlike others, I always knew why I did a particular action a particular way and could give a reason when asked. I even knew my weaknesses. While I know I’ve never been especially good at multitasking, from observing others and from reading science magazine articles of psychology tests I see that most people cannot multitask. The only difference between myself and others is that I know my shortcomings. Others mindlessly plow ahead and make stupid mistakes without even knowing it. I catch my mistakes. Most people are so unaware they don’t even know their own thinking.
Sometimes people act aware and sometimes people act like robots. Has anyone else noticed this same phenomenon?
One thing I have observed in life is that the very same stimulus can yield opposite responses in different people. Psychology is frustratingly unpredictable, yet most people act as if they believe everyone thinks just as they do.
Does care for our fellow citizens make us statists or libertarians? Protecting our countrymen from criminals and unfair business practices requires a strong government, but protecting our countrymen from government corruption and injustice requires that government be weak. Those on both sides of this issue speak as though those on the other side obviously only care about themselves, treating it as a given. They never give the issues any deeper thought. I have even seen professors of psychology and political science – who should know better – do the same.
Does greed make us capitalists or communists? On the one hand, capitalists seem to be motivated by the desire to acquire resources. They love to earn money. On the other hand, communists also seem to be motivated by the desire to acquire resources. The poor want the wealth of the rich redistributed to them and the politicians want the power to manage the whole system of redistribution.
Does valuing liberty make us pro-choice or pro-life? Obviously, liberty includes the freedom to choose, and the freedom to get abortions, but a dead person can make no choices, and so liberty must also include life and the freedom to not be aborted. A libertarian can support either side and still call themselves libertarian, no matter what other libertarians might say.
Does valuing being true to one’s self make us pro-transsexual or anti-transsexual? It’s a sad thing when someone hates another. It’s even sadder when one hates themselves. Being who you were born to be means accepting reality and embracing the body you have, not the one you wish you had. However, being who you were born to be can also mean accepting the reality that the body you have doesn’t fit the “real” you.
Is Darwinism or The Bible more racist? On one hand, the Bible teaches us that all mankind descends from just two people, Adam and Eve. We are all brethren. On the other hand, racists have used Noah’s curse on his son Ham as an excuse to discriminate against Ham’s supposed descendants. On one hand, Darwinism goes even further than the Bible, teaching us that not only all humans, but all life including plants and bacteria, are descended from a single ancestor. On the other hand, racists have used Darwin’s ideas to support the claim that some people are more evolved than others and that some people are basically just animals. Both sides claim the ideas of the other are too dangerous to be taught to our children. Evolutionists claim that Christianity breeds racial conflict, while Christians claim the same about evolutionary theories. Evolutionists also claim that those not taught evolution as children will never develop the science skills necessary to be good engineers, which is silly. Christians also claim that those taught evolution as children will all become atheists, which is equally silly. It’s all so very silly.
Does belief in an afterlife make you a better person or a worse person? Thinking that this is all there is and knowing that there will be no permanent consequences for bad behavior can cause one to live to enjoy the moment by giving in to selfishness or even sadism, while believing in a reward-punishment program after death can incentivize one to behave morally. On the other hand, thinking that this is all there is and knowing that riches will fade can cause one to give up on selfish accumulation and instead seek to serve others during the little time they have left, while believing in a reward-punishment program allows one to be manipulated by false religious teachers to engage in immorality such as terrorism.
Are Calvinists or Arminians more likely to evangelize? Believing that God always gets his way with or without anyone’s help, saving whom he pleases and damning the rest, has given some Calvinists an excuse not to waste their time trying to win people whose fate one way or the other is already certain. At the same time, believing that each individual ultimately ends up where they want to be by their own choices has given some Arminians an excuse not to waste their time trying to win people who have already made up their minds.
Does being surrounded by temptation make us weaker or stronger? There have been studies done suggesting that the subconscious associates food cravings with scarcity. Keeping your house well-stocked with candy and other supplies sends the subconscious the signal that there is no need to accumulate anything more, and the cravings go away. On the other hand, whenever I know there is candy in the house I cannot think of anything else until it consumed. When I have to travel all the way to the store for candy, my laziness wins out. Some people have suggested that willpower is like a muscle that must be exercised in order to strengthen it. This is why many people give up something for lent. However, studies have shown that whenever people feel as if they have been deprived (either by themselves or others), they will subconsciously grant themselves some liberty to make up for it. Those who give to charity are ruder. Those who skipped dessert yesterday will eat twice as much today.
Does going through a period of scarcity make one more generous or more stingy? On the one hand, those who have experienced poverty might be extra careful never to experience it again by never giving anything away, while the rich have such abundance they don’t mind giving much of it away. On the other hand, those who have experienced poverty know firsthand how it feels and might better empathize with others going through the same thing, while the rich don’t have a clue and might never think of anyone but themselves.
It’s all in the application.
One thing that I have observed in life is that most people see distinctions I do not. They are always dividing us into different groups based on personality traits or modes of thought, but I have a hard time understanding the classification.
Reason and Emotion
One of the most common false dichotomies I hear is that some of us are rational while others are emotional. I am told that reason and emotion are enemies and that it is impossible to use both simultaneously. I have always seen them as complimentary. If I do not know, how can I care? And if I do not care, what difference does it make that I know? In order to escape a burning building, one must both use reason to understand that they are in danger and use emotion to choose to make use of that understanding one way or another. One without reason is as likely to run in place as run out the door, while one without emotions is also as likely to run in place as run out the door.
People are too quick to make assumptions. They assume that the emotional response is to run into a burning building to retrieve objects of value while the rational response is to remain outdoors until the danger passes. Why can’t it be that the emotional response is to flee the flames in fear while the rational response is to carefully analyze the risk and determine it still minimal enough to run back in to rescue the baby? Which individual is risk-averse? The one who does not want to risk burns and suffocation or the one who does not want to risk losing irreplaceable things that are likely salvageable? In every action, there are emotional tradeoffs based on the perceived outcomes – perceptions arrived at through reason.
Left and Right
I am told that the right side of the brain is creative while the left side of the brain is logical. Right-thinkers make great artists but are easily fooled by propaganda while left-thinkers can balance a budget but are unable to invent creative solutions to new issues. I have always seen logic and creativity as complimentary. Creativity feeds on logic. Understanding how things work is a necessary base for extrapolating how they can work differently.
I am told that left-thinkers are better at critical thinking and right-thinkers are better at seeing “the whole picture” at once, but how can one engage in critical thought without seeing the whole picture? A left-thinker might be able to follow a chain of logic left behind by a right-thinker, but they would not be able to create one themselves. I have observed that some people get hung up on symbols while losing track of the underlying reality the symbols represent. This causes them to make comical and sometimes dangerous mistakes. Since it is supposedly left-thinkers that get lost in details, are good with symbols (both language and math), and are sequential in their thinking, it follows that left-thinkers are bad at critical thinking – yet this is the opposite of what I am told.
East and West
In eastern thought things are defined in relationship to other things whereas in western thought things are defined in isolation. Thus, an easterner might define a bird as that which eats seeds and is eaten by cats while a westerner might define a bird as an object with feathers and wings. I have problems with this dichotomy too.
Reductionism is supposedly a western idea. In reductionism, feathers can be described as having vanes and barbs and wings can be described as having bones and skin. Even if the bird is broken all the way down into its constituent subatomic particles, the motion of those particles is meaningless except in relation to other particles. Since mass is nothing but resistance to a change in motion, mass too is meaningless except in relation to other particles. The same goes for spin and charge. Ultimately, all thought is eastern thought.
At the same time, easterners would never be able to understand or communicate about the immensely complex world without imposing some sort of simplifying taxonomy onto it. I assume they have finite minds like everyone else. This requires breaking things down so they will fit in memory. Ultimately, all thought is western thought.
Faces and Vases
I wonder if the propensity of humans to see things as “either-or” has a neurological basis. I am told that in viewing pictures like the one here, people always see either a vase or two faces but never both at the same time. This has been cited as proof of a central consciousness distinct from all the sensory data our brains continually filter through that our subconscious is “aware” of but “we” are not. Oddly, I have never had a problem seeing both faces and vase at the same time. Am I an alien?
My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.