On Better Mental Representations Part I: Adopting ‘Thinking Tools’

If you don’t mind an introduction using some poppy philosophical thinking, please indulge me as I channel Alan Watts. Correct me if I am wrong but if I remember Watts once spoke or written about how we misconstrue our representations of things for the actual things. In extension of that, we can also say (as we measure) that we also misconstrue our ‘valuation’ of things to be the things themselves.

Watts gave out a quite clever example of this which involves wood (natural resource) and inches (measurement). Let me roughly paraphrase through this anecdote (adding some creative flair or more honestly winging it without watering down the gist).

There’s a foreman and his men building a house. They had all the natural resources that need be there to build an adequate house for a small family of four. But for some “price shock” in the “Platonic” realm, the currency of measurement by inches ran out of circulation.

The foreman told his workers. “Sorry, fellas. We can’t finish building the house anymore. We have ran out of inches.”

“What do you mean? We still have planks, nails, tools like hammers, and enough man power to finish building the house.”, answered a carpenter amongst the team.

The foreman replied, “Sorry, Edward. You don’t understand. The world has ran out of inches.”

Ludicrous isn’t it? This is also how many of us think about the “value” of things. We think of them in monetary value. Inches, like money, is a representation of something: the length of some thing. It is not the thing itself. It is a measure.

It’s the same thing as money. It’s something that has no intrinsic value. We only give value to it. We internally represent in our minds that it has value.

I am not saying money is bad, useless, or the root of all evil, Jesus forbid. I’m just saying that it is similar to what the “inches” there serves in the anecdote. It serves, almost, as the end all be all of valuation. We, often times, confuse our representations of things to be the things themselves; i.e. we mistake concepts of things to be the things themselves.

But this is to be expected. We do think of things as how they are in our representations. This is all we can ever do. It is only from these representations that we can glean into reality. They both enable and limit our capacity to “capture” things and their features from our environment. This goes both for our body and our minds (forgive the dualism, it’s just a matter of getting the point across easier).


Firstly, evolution has “gifted” us with a biology that can approximate reality. We now know, through science, that what we call visible light is just a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that our human eyes can detect. It is but a part of the whole picture. What we detect is just an approximation of which there is there.

Our hearing works the same way. There’s a certain range from about 20 to 20,000 hertz. Loudness is just our perception of the pressure exerted by sound waves to our tympanic membrane. It’s just air molecules going through different physical processes that convert it to “sound”--our inner representations of it. Without having a working approximator, no “sound”. This works the same way with our other senses like taste, smell, and proprioception. Approximation is the name of the game. These, I term, biological approximators or bio-approximators. These are our sense and other organs that we use to navigate ourselves in the world. These can be tricked. In 2014, humans were capable of sending “smells” from New York to Paris. These more or less same humans (including co-inventor David Edwards) embarked on a mission to commercialize the scents. One “cool” thing about it is that they created a device that can be connected to a Bluetooth speaker. It can create an olfactory playlist for long commutes. One, for example, can play “Thai Beach Vacation” and the device will “play” the scents of coconut, suntan lotion, and sea breeze in a loop.

Of course, if exposed to it we don’t really smell coconuts, suntan lotion, and sea breeze. We smell highly similar smells. We can manipulate “signals” to act “dishonestly”.

In nature (or the wild, to be more precise), animals, mostly with no comprehension of doing them, emit such dishonest signals. A fiddler crab is known for having one much larger claw. If it should lose it in a battle with another male for a female, another weaker one grows. It’s lighter and less effective than the original. But this ‘weaker one’ still looks the part and can scare other males away before they engage in combat. This is considered to be a dishonest signal. It’s the same thing with the famous cuckoo bird and reed warbler dynamics. In the latter’s case, it’s one species against another.

But one good thing about being human is that we have conceptual approximators. These extends the “bare” capacities of our bio-approximators to understand things that evolution didn’t specifically selected for us to understand. These are what Dan Dennett called ‘thinking tools’ . They are imagination extenders and focus-holders.

Examples of them are calculus and Bayesian inference. There are those that are mathematical in nature (abstract). There are those that are explanatory and predictive ‘narratives’. Many are used by the people of science. These are quite powerful.

Like the radio telescope helps us “see” (or perceive) things our eyes normally wouldn’t see (or just a plain telescope), these conceptual tools of thought let’s our “mind’s eye” see things that we, without them, couldn’t “see”.

Urbain Le Verrier just used mathematics to predict the location of an undiscovered accurately. It extended his imagination. That planet is Neptune (it didn’t work for “Vulcan” though). Einstein was famous for using thought experiments for his great achievements. Extremists use their morals derived from “reason” to cause havoc and spread misinformation.

Wait what? Yes. Thinking tools are not created equal. Some may be better than others. Some are just plain dumb and dangerous. The problem is that ideologues or carriers of these faulty thinking tools mix effective “signalling” with intellectual hogwash.

Like how an “upside down goggles” can trick our eyes to see the world upside down (some people can adjust rather quickly), concepts and ideologies can also trick our “mind’s eye” to see the world upside down (and still some people can adjust rather quickly, Flat Earth).

What’s going on here is that ideologues use signals that would make them look legitimate, scientific, or deep. They try to look the part to play the part. This shows in their works. In the way they use facts and “facts” together. It’s hard to develop a trained “mind’s eye” to see such things. We can be tricked.

This is why constant testing of our selves and the tools we wield is a good exercise. Where do we test these? We send them to academic journals (the good ones who review well). We share them in a community like this. We test them in conferences or meetups to be judged and questioned by peers and other experts. We get chastised and we get helped.

While it doesn’t feel good to be wrong naturally, but there is overwhelming joy to not being wrong anymore. Or, in many cases, to be less wrong.

Be Less Wrong. It’s a good thing to find this rational community where people are encouraged to be “less wrong”. This is exactly the direction that science has been going for. Sometimes science an be exact but at other times, all we can do is to be less wrong about things and be happy with it. Well, this is before more clever folks open the doors. For now, I think many will not be opened ever.

The adoption of tools (physical and conceptual), how their use become robust, and how they are past over from a generation to generations does not just depend upon the efficiency and honesty of such tools. It depends upon the communities that wield them. Just like in biological evolution, a gene couldn’t spread without a population. Good thinking tools couldn’t make their mark in the evolutionary cultural timeline without agents to pass them on, to pass through, and to be in.

As clever as hairless apes can be, humans managed with considerable success to do influence the frequency of genes through engineering. Gene drive is a technology that can help stifle the population of the mosquitoes that carry malaria. It is by cutting out the ability of a mosquitoes to carry malaria or cutting the ability to pass on its genes by making it infertile. This technology of driving a particular combination of genes in a population has even gotten funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Scientists execute the gene drive through introducing genetically-altered agents carrying harmless and long-lasting genes into a ‘harmful’ population to infiltrate it, propagate their “specially prepared genes” in it to lessen the frequency of harm-causing genes endemic in the population in the first place. I argue that it’s the same thing with ideas and thinking tools.

Causes have their lobbyist, ideologues, and propagandists. They infiltrate institutions like the government, education, and the media with the goal of spreading their way of thinking. It is through ‘tapping’ in many communities that they can likely spread these concepts.

For the people who hold rational thinking high up in the pedestal (I think I do belong in this demographic), they don’t have many of these specialists. I even say that it is such a loose community as many in it are too busy within their own areas of research. There is no bloc. Many would like to do away with the politics of it and just focus on gazing into the glorious light at the edge of human understanding.

But there is no time to waste. These tools for the “mind’s eye” need to be cultivated in communities. It is time for people in rational communities like this to act as agents of change; not to force feed reason and science into others but to cultivate the very same interest that got themselves hooked in the first place; not to make enemies but peers.

Of course, this is the ideal. It doesn’t necessarily hold in reality. I’m sure many of us have bumps along the way. It’s not easy. But as UFC featherweight champion Jerome Max Halloway says “It is what it is.”

I’m not high on the “meme” concept but I think it works fine here with not much of a bad intellectual repercussion. Just like the gene drive it’s high time for intense meme drives to let other people out there with the germ for the love of wisdom to get high on clearer thinking; to adopt thinking tools in their attempts to do thinking better.

As Bo Dahlbom, a computer scientist, philosopher, and former student of Dan Dennett, states:

“Just as you cannot do much carpentry with your bare hands, there is not much thinking you can do with your bare brain.”

For Part II. In the second part of this series, I’ll delve more on the concept of the degrees of accuracy and rationality.


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