Why We Can’t Stop Fooling Ourselves
An Apolitical Essay for a Political Time.
A Meditation on Quantum Knowledge, Information Castles, & Love
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Physicist Richard Feynman once said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
It occurs to me during this post-election dysphoria where whatever news you want to perceive about its results is readily available for your consumption, that one of the bizarre and unsettling truths of the 21st century and its great technological data boom is the realization that information didn’t actually make us smarter. It just made it easier to fool ourselves.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about these graphs (DIKW hierarchy) and Feynman’s quote.
Thinking about how in an information abundant landscape we can conjure up nearly any idea about our own personal realities and backtrack to find some “data” to support it. I’m not talking about motivated reasoning or selection bias here. Rather, I’m talking about something much bigger. Much sneakier.
I'm talking about the idea that in an infinitely expanding information landscape, all propositions become both true and untrue simultaneously. We get stuck in a quantum fluctuating world where merely observing the “information electron” forces it left or right or up or down. Merely observing it makes it come to be.
We simply have a thought that we perceive to be some approximation of reality and simply by searching for its validity on the internet we will it further and further into existence. This is Wittgenstein’s worst nightmare come to life. A Monocultural Hive Mind Mirror Machine that reflects back on to the user exactly what he or she wishes to see. That user then shares that reflection and by sharing it then affirms its own existence.
In an ideal world where a culture or civilization tries to make sense of their surroundings in order to ensure their continued survival while simultaneously innovating their way out of any evolutionary pressure points, they might try to start with data and hopefully somehow shape that data into coherency. Something resembling information. And hopefully, from there, take that information and shape it into something like knowledge or insight that is scalable and practical. Something that matches neatly on to reality. And then use that knowledge to somehow forge a notion of wisdom. Timeless rules that have both practical and evolutionary value at the individual and group level.
The problem is that in a hyper-connected world the Rø of information spreads 10000x that of a virus - and we simply don’t have the mental software clever enough or powerful enough to compress that information into knowledge fast enough.
We don’t have the time required to take psychic breaths. To sit in psychic silence. The time that knowledge and wisdom require of us in order to fully bake in our conceptual ovens. It’s all just a barrage of ingredients and smells that resemble what a fully prepared intellectual meal might taste and look like.
What we are left with in its’ wake is just inflationary memetic noise masked as self-conviction. We tell ourselves a thing must be true because the alternative — living in that quantum state indefinitely — is worse. If a “thing” can break up or down or left or right equally and continually and endlessly depending simply on how I “observe it”…. why wouldn’t I “observe it” in a way that makes more sense to me in the first place.
I don’t just mean this metaphorically. In the same way, the brain and ears are constantly vigilant, scanning the environment, evaluating any external noises as potential threats, always a moment's notice away from going into “high-alert mode”… so too does it behave the same way for informational noise. “Does this “noise” have implications for my survival? Implications for my map of reality? If my map of reality is wrong, how at risk am I? How vulnerable am I?”
This barrage of untethered information keeps us chained to our monkey brains. Chained to a sympathetic nervous system response. The Prefrontal Cortex never gets to come into the game and make sense of the noise. Never gets a chance to put it in its proper place. To derive knowledge and context and wisdom out of it. It quite literally prevents us from evolving.
I am reminded recently of a story I once read about the origins of Taoist philosophy as told by the parable of the Dextrous Butcher.
Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou music.
“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.
“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.
“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wenhui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to care for life!”
The point of this story is about deep learning through simplicity. A man that unlocked prophetic timeless wisdom through butchering oxen. That through years and years of fidelity to a single act, a single endeavor, profound insights, and wisdom about all of life begin to emerge. The brain begins to make metaphoric connections to ancient memetic truths that transcends the “external noise”. Turning the lizard brain off. Turning the non-essential volume down. Living comfortably in the quantum space.
Compare this with the alternative; trying to hold all the information on the internet in one breath. Trying to map it at once. Trying to make sense of it as a coherent whole and then lying to ourselves about having done so. Like trying to visualize a billion sided Polyhedron or imagining all the stars of the universe in a single glance of your mind’s eye.
I’m guilty of this as much as the next person. Too much information. Too many stars in the sky. Not enough time to count them all. Takes too much effort to live in the quantum indeterminate space. Better off sticking with the constellations I know and backtrack from there.
And so I contend that this is actually the real struggle of our generation. Not Climate Change, not politics, not economics. Rather, what do you do with hyperinflationary information in a recessionary knowledge economy? The struggle simply stated: How honest can we really be expected to keep ourselves when the ability to fool ourselves is just a mouse click away.
There are solid reasons to be deeply pessimistic about the outlook here. But then again, that might just be me “observing the thing” a little too much.
It does help in these moments to remind myself of another Feynman quote.
“Physics and science isn’t the most important thing. Love is.”
It may sound cheesy, but in an information cascade, best to stick with the wisdom that has stood the test of time. Best to stick with those like Feynman and Gandhi and Ding and Aurelius. Those who have traveled deep into the information universe and have returned with only things like “love”, “gratitude”, “simplicity”, “forgiveness” in their return suitcases. Things that the cynic perceives as banal platitudes and the sage approaches with irreverent respect.
And so I try to keep that as the plaque hanging over my informational front door most days. That the important thing is Love. It's the gargoyle watching over my knowledge castle. Make sure I don’t fool myself. Making sure I don’t convince myself too thoroughly that I have all the sky’s stars accounted for.
Admittedly he’s not the best gargoyle. He needs to be woken up from his slumber frequently. But you’d be foolish to count him out. Especially in times like this.