When intuitions break down

We’re not very good at updating our intuitions about the world.

Whether it’s due to pride, cognitive dissonance or sheer bloody-mindedness, we cling to ideas, notions and wishes which are… well… bullshit.

Changing our minds is expensive – both cognitively and reputationally. Not only do we have to figure out what we actually believe, but we have to deal with the fact that we might have been wrong about something for a long time. And that last part can be incredibly painful.

Whilst we might understand and accept that our views have to change if the situation becomes radically different, we don’t often appreciate how our intuitions and assumptions about the world break down completely at scales and perspectives which are different from our own.

The cosmologist Max Tegmark gives some examples from physics

“At high speeds, Einstein realized that time slows down…

…At low temperatures, liquid helium can flow upward.

…At high temperatures, colliding particles change identity…

…if you intuitively understand all aspects of black holes [then you] should immediately put down this book and publish your findings before someone scoops you on the Nobel Prize for quantum gravity”

As we move away from our normal speed, size and temperature, what we know about the world comes apart and becomes untrue. In fact, in some cases, the opposite becomes true.

This shows us that the truths we cling to are often tied to parameters which are not part of our intuition. And when the parameters change, our intuitions will be out of step with reality.

Our truths depend on perspective, so we should not be surprised when those with different perspectives, hold different truths, intuitions and assumptions about the world.

When we know this we can begin to ask of others:

what parameters (some of which might be invisible to me) are their intuitions relying on?

And of ourselves:

what happens to our own intuitions if we adjust those same parameters?

At what point do our own intuitions and truths completely break down?

By doing this we can get a better understanding of others and why they believe what they do.

We also recognise that the cut and dried world is actually messier than it might seem. Our assumptions might keep us clean and dry, but if we want to know what’s really going on, we need to roll up our sleeves and be prepared to get our intuitions dirty.

Stand for something or fall for anything

marcus-aurelius-by-christopher-empson
Whether we know it or not – each of us has an operating system.

It’s the combination of beliefs, attitudes, rules and algorithms that shapes our experience of the world.

And just as iOS or Android are the systems which allow our phones to make sense of what we type into them – our operating system (OS) is how we make sense of what we see, hear, smell, taste and feel.

And what sits at the core of our OS, are our fundamental beliefs about what’s true and important.

These beliefs come from everywhere: religion, philosophy, fiction, culture, the internet and Kim Kardashian.

And while that point is quite flippant, the quality of these beliefs is hugely important. Because it’s these core beliefs which we access and draw on when dealing with difficult situations.

They either rouse us to action or invite us to pause and reflect.

They advise us to turn the other cheek, or command us to take up arms against those who have wronged us.

They’re FUNDAMENTAL to how we think, feel and behave. They dictate how we operate, both as individuals and societies.

So, what sits at the core of your OS?

Have you even thought about it?

We each have something within us which steers our every move and thought, and yet what have we done to understand, or shape it?

Are our beliefs helpful? Moral? Optimal? Legal? Just?

When you’re faced with a difficult situation, will your OS help or hinder your progress? Is it geared towards making things better, or settling scores? Is it tuned for the common good, or personal benefit?

The stoics were concerned with building the best practical operating system they possibly could. They wanted something which would work for everyone: from emperors to prisoners, soldiers to artists.

At the core of their operating system, they put 4 virtues:

wisdom

courage

justice

moderation

They believed that if you started from these virtues and if you used them them to inform your thinking and action, you couldn’t go far wrong.

I don’t yet know if the stoics were right or wrong about their virtues, but I do know that it’s a worthwhile project.

For every person on the planet, examining and optimising your OS is a task worth undertaking, because the prize is so great: a better experience of the world.

If you haven’t deliberately decided what’s at the core of your OS, then it’s time to choose. Because if you don’t, someone else will.

If you don’t shape your own beliefs, they will be shaped by others, without your consent.

If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

Thanks to Tim Ferriss for the idea of Stoicism as an OS – which let to the overriding metaphor in this post.

We are not our thoughts

tiger-tiger-by-id-iom

We identify a lot with our thoughts and give them a lot of credence.

We feel a strong sense of ownership and responsibility for them.

After all, we brought them into this world, they’re for us to deal with.

There is an extent to which this is helpful, to which this ownership of thoughts has evolved as a survival mechanism to protect us.

“I need to eat.”

“I am in danger.”

“I need to get out of here.

Our identification with these thoughts helped turned them into actions which prolonged our life. And in the moments when our lives are in jeopardy, this process is incredibly useful.

But most of the situations for which these mechanisms were evolved, no longer exist. On the level of our day-to-day lives, we face very few existential threats.

Despite this, we are still bombarded with thoughts and messages with which we immediately identify. Unfortunately this identification with our thoughts is often deeply unhelpful.

One of the main reasons we identify with thoughts so quickly, is that we often assume they are true. We assume that our thoughts represent a rational and reasonable point of view about the world and that they are worthy of our attention and belief.

But this is not the case at all. Our thoughts are just messages which bubble up from our neural chemistry like a spring of water from the ground. We don’t ask for them, they just pop into our head.

They often have little basis in any kind of objective reality but we assume that they are telling us truths about the world. We do this partly because our experience of our thoughts is real – and most of the time REAL = TRUE.

It feels real when we have a thought. We can feel the impact of it in our head. We can hear it and we can see it.

We can also watch thoughts appear and disappear. If we take the time to just sit and become aware of what our mind it doing, we can observe our thoughts rise up, float around and then fall away.

But that doesn’t mean that what our thoughts say is true. It doesn’t make them actuate, observations of the world.

And it’s this tendency for us to conflate and confuse our REAL experience of our thoughts, with them being TRUE which causes us a lot of unnecessary pain and distress.

What’s not immediately obvious to us, is that we get to CHOOSE whether we believe our thoughts. We get to choose whether we act on our thoughts. And we get to choose whether they have an impact on us while they flood our mind.

These choices aren’t obvious to us however, because all of those settings are switched to “on” by default. By default, we believe our thoughts, we let them have an impact on us and we often action them.

But we don’t have to.

When we see our thoughts for what they are and don’t accept them as gospel, then we can be more skillful in how we deal with them.

We can choose whether to believe them.

We can choose whether to identify with them.

We can choose whether to act on them.

We are not our thoughts – and we should choose to remember that.

Thinking about belief

Our milky way above a dead forest, aka 'Woodhenge', near the banks of the river Maas, near the Dutch-Belgian border.

I’ve been thinking about belief, about how it works (and doesn’t). I’ve also been thinking about and why I don’t think about it more. Why we all, collectively, don’t think about it more.

One of the things that is unique to us as humans is our ability to engage in meta cognition – to step outside ourselves and look at how we think. But thinking about thinking and understanding how our beliefs work seems almost as unpalatable as updating our beliefs when new information comes along.

Two things set me down this path:

– An episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast on Bayes’ Theorem

Sam Harris reading from his book, The End of Faith

Both are about the nature of belief but come at it from completely different sides.

You Are Not So Smart is looking at belief as a greyscale where things are neither true or untrue, but they have a probability of being either. Once we accept this, we can use Bayes’ Theorem to understand the probability around our beliefs and update them when new information comes to hand.

Sam Harris on the other hand is taking a logical sledgehammer to some of the most cherished beliefs we have – those around religion. He shines a light on the dangers inherent in taking our beliefs from ancient texts which don’t stand up to any kind of modern scrutiny and the importance of reforming those beliefs as quickly as possible.

Even if you don’t agree with Harris on religion, there are interesting though experiments and ideas to take away.

Both are broadly concerned with the mechanisms which can either reinforce or erode our beliefs and the value or otherwise in doing so.

I’m still doing the work to required to have an opinion on all of this, but if you’re interested in understanding and challenging what you believe about what you believe – these are two good places to start.

Bacon, God & Hashtags (or the price of belief)

There is always a price to pay for belief (or a lack thereof it).

In my 20s, I didn’t believe in the laxative effects of prune juice. The price I paid in that case was 3 hours in a service station toilet.

I don’t believe in God (I haven’t seen anything that gives me reason to), but I know that comes as a cost. If I’m wrong, depending on which god I’m wrong about, I may have to spend an eternity in damnation with heinous torture devices, eternal misery and cold coffee.

I may not even make it that far if I run into one of those lovely counties where apostasy is a capital offence. You know, those bastions of freedom and tolerance like: Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Thankfully, we only sell weapons to a few of them.

If you do believe in God, and it turns that you’re wrong, then there is no threat of eternal damnation, the price is merely an opportunity cost. What you could/would have done if you knew in advance that (s)he didn’t exist. Maybe you would have eaten more bacon, committed more adultery, or done some more coveting of your neighbour’s ass. I’m sure somewhere in the world #AssCoveting is a viable hashtag.

Despite the prune juice, I still don’t believe in God. I know I’m risking the equivalent of eternity in a service station toilet, but it still seems like a good bet. I’m not even in it for the bacon or the hashtag. The stakes may be high, but at least I know what the stakes are.

How many things do we believe where we don’t know what the price is? How big is the price we’re paying? Is it bacon, #AssCoveting or the entire spectrum of service station toilets in between?