Making Sense of Anything

Babies aren’t stupid. They look stupid, but they aren’t. They can start manipulating people around them when only a few days old. The problem babies have is that the world simply produces far too much data, and it takes a person years to figure out how to filter out enough stimulus to be able to accurately use our senses.

As we grow, we keep advancing this skillset. Most highly-productive adults manage precisely because we have trained their minds to ignore or otherwise block out the vast majority of data that our bodies is capable of receiving. Otherwise we would be as paralyzed as a newborn.

So how do we make sense of it all? Not, as we might like to think, by using cold reason. “Correlation is not causality” is certainly a well-known logical fallacy, but correlation is causality for the vast majority of life experiences, especially for human thoughts, words and emotions that have little or no physical reality. In other words: we adopt or make up stories to make sense of the world.

There is, in human experience, no other way. These stories are not necessarily fairy tales or biblical; stories exist within the Scientific Method and all manners of technical fields as well. Every scientific or engineering model is a story. We need stories to find a way to make sense of all the noise, to separate the important things from the tangential or irrelevant.

Stories, are of course, not true, at least not in any absolute sense. As George Box put it, “All models are wrong but some are useful.” Any story includes or omits some data, at least on the fringes. The prism of our experience, our senses and instruments, as well as our language and culture further narrows down any experience we might have.

The vast majority of people are not remotely self-aware of any of this: data comes in, is filtered more-or-less automatically, and a response is generated. In cultures and societies where original thought is discouraged, it is even less likely that someone will see something differently. People see what they expect to see. And the old adage about hammers and nails continues to be true: if you are holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

This is not necessarily a criticism, of course. To do something very well, we need to be well adapted for a given task. A soccer player or a soldier needs to act quickly and decisively – under stress – in order to be successful. It takes years of training for such an expert to learn not to second-guess themselves.

Those few people who are able to consciously force themselves to mentally take a step back, and examine their assumptions often have to pay a price for this insight: they are invariably not as good at the core skillset, if for no other reason that they lack focus. Innovators are usually not, absent the innovation itself, effective competitors against the status quo. (This is one reason why disruptors are often dismissed out of hand by those who are optimized for the tried-and-true.)

Our stories matter. And, true or not, they are the reality for whomever believes them. There is no way anyone can convince a superstitious person to ignore their superstitions. Religion and science are at least as impervious to logic, and why not? I wrote some years ago on describing a glass that is half full of water.

This is not dissimilar to the question about whether a glass is half full or half empty. Both are objectively true statements, but they may lead to radically different decisions. Someone who chooses to see nature, for example, as beautiful and majestic, is much more likely to go on holiday in the Alps than someone who sees nature as a powerful yet impersonal force, cruelly indifferent to whether someone lives or dies. Both sets of observations are true, but they lead to very different choices.

Indeed, our beliefs allow us to discern patterns, picking them out from an ocean of vast data. Though it may be true that a table is actually almost entirely empty space, only loosely knitted together by atoms that are themselves bonded with spinning and tunneling electrons, nevertheless, for our mundane purposes, the table is a solid and stable surface which we can use. Our beliefs help us make sense of all the data, and to extract what we think we need to know in order to make decisions. We start with our senses, but it is our thoughts, words, and deeds that form the world in which we live.

A glass which is half full may be described as half empty. Or, if one is angry, that same glass might be described as a likely projectile. It could be a useful way to demonstrate refraction or light, or it might be considered as a crude (and perhaps short lived) hammer. There are, indeed, infinite ways one might tell a story about a glass that is half full of water, and each of these can be true. But none of them can be complete. There is no way, if there are infinite descriptions available, that one could ever encapsulate all of them to give us “true” knowledge of the glass.

With this understanding, it is possible – and certainly highly desirable – for us to tolerate our differences. We don’t have to celebrate them, of course: I am sure that I am right, just as others who disagree with me have no doubt of their own correctness. The key thing is to appreciate that other people can indeed disagree with us without either party being necessarily wrong.

Let me put it another way: there is the old adage of a bunch of blind men surrounding an elephant. They each describe what they are feeling – one a wall, one a column, one a hose, etc. Not one of those blind men is wrong: they are simply connecting with different parts of the same elephant. Different conclusions are not necessarily in conflict with one another.

This is why conservatives and religionists and just about everyone else is making a big mistake when they take refuge in “the facts.” Ronald Reagan once famously said “You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Ronald Reagan was wrong.

Take a set of data – any data whatsoever. Perhaps, to keep things “objective,” we can use an actual set of numbers: say, for the sake of argument, a chart of the temperature in Boston during the month of August. I hardly need to write anything further to make my case, do I? After all, climate change adherents have already made it for me: mankind cannot even agree on whether or not weather is normal. Statistics do not lie – they tell a story. There is no “objective” way to present data – there are just different ways to make different points.

With the set of temperature data from Boston in August, we could show that temperatures are above, below, or precisely “normal.” By showing extremes rather than averages, we can make one case – and by smoothing the data we can make an opposite case. And that is just with so-called-“objective” numbers!

I have the same problem with any descriptor. What I call “plant food” (CO2) is, in the eyes of climate change adherents, a pollutant. We are both right – CO2 is a necessary and useful feed for plants, but if you think that what mankind does is bad for nature, then CO2 is also a pollutant.

We cannot win when we insist on “the facts.” Facts, like politics, religious beliefs, and schools of scientific thought, are too deeply connected to all the things that we have learned, over the course of a lifetime, to include in our understanding, or filter out as irrelevant to the story we wish to tell.

This is not a flaw in humanity unless we insist on making it one. I think it is actually an endearing feature, and one that anyone who wants to improve the world would do well to understand. Marketing is important because marketing helps change how people think. Assuming that what we are marketing is good – is marketing not a valuable thing to do?

A person’s reality is real for them. My religious belief is as real for me as is the belief of a muslim or an atheist or a cargo-culter. I cannot deny that a muslim believes in Allah, with all that comes with that belief, just as I cannot deny the beliefs of a Climate Change-adhering, Gaia-worshipping pagan. It is real for them.

But here is the catch: I do not believe that just because reality is subjective, that what is good or holy is similarly subjective. And what is “good” or “holy” is not measured by defining an underlying reality. To borrow from Matthew 7:16 – they are defined by their fruits – by what they produce.

The beliefs we have should not be measured by their underlying truth (which I believe is unprovable in any case), but by their result. We are very unlikely to change minds based on the assumptions and presuppositions of the people with whom we disagree. People find it extremely difficult to try to erase a lifetime of making the data fit in the stories they use to make sense of the world. Where we can change minds is by comparing the outcomes of the beliefs that people hold. Because while we might not agree on the nature or the name of the Creator of the world, most people can agree that certain outcomes are better than others.

Because I believe that mankind is supposed to improve the world, I am shameless in pointing out that lifespan and wealth and well-being excel in the places where mankind is most encouraged and free to be creative. Liberty should sell because it works, not necessarily because freedom is necessarily “true.”

Which brings me to the question: what promotes liberty? And the answer is as self-serving as they come: American ideals, backed by traditional Judeo-Christian values of hard work and responsibility, and respect for the individual whom we believe is made in the image of G-d. Each man’s life, liberty, and property are necessary (if not sufficient) ingredients for maximizing human creative potential.

For me, both from a historical and a practical perspective, the Torah is the common bedrock for the foundation of liberty. It took thousands of years to mature, but every faith built on different beliefs (and especially the non-faiths that inevitably decay in one form or another of the Law of the Jungle) has fallen fall short of Judaism and Christianity.

Which leads to my specific worldview: I am a libertarian Torah Jew. (It helps that I do not see the Torah as being in conflict with any of the above: the text itself, instead of arguing for some Greek concept of absolute truth, instead shows (and emphasizes) different perspectives on the same events.) For me, freedom and liberty are the keys to the future. But without the underlying text, we lose contact with what is holy and good.

In conclusion: while insisting that we are right and others are wrong is often very satisfying, it is rarely persuasive. (I remember reading once that Muslims in history have only rarely even been the majority population even in their own countries – when “marketing” comes down to “My Deity Says So”, it has already lost most of its audience.)

Instead, we need to help people value what we believe is good and holy: life, creativity, respect, freedom. And we can do that by emphasizing the things that decent people should be able to agree are good: long lifespans, good health, a sense of purpose and fulfillment in each person’s life. We need to tell the stories, celebrating human advancement and goodness. We need to help everyone dream of what they can do. Such a goal helps all of mankind direct our lives toward the holy and the good.

Comments are welcome!