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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