Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Doesn't Look Like Anything to Me

Or, It Is Enough to Know That Not to Know Is Enough

Or, And That's Why I Have to Go and Investigate Reality

Or, Owning Our Uncertainty Makes us Kinder, More Creative, and More Alive

Seems much of my consumption lately has shared a recurring theme of: Not Knowing.

This post's title is a reference to the TV show Westworld. We just finished watching the first season. In it, the park's "hosts"--the artificial intelligence "robots"--are programmed to say that about anything that is a reference to beyond their artificial world. Generally, the outside, "real" world. The whole season was characterized by a "suspense of disorientation," of not knowing who is "real" and who is not, what is "real" and what is not, and when different scenes were taking place in relation to each other. The very essence of its appeal lay in not knowing. (There will be a separate yet related look at the season at the very end of this post.)

The other references above are to books I've just finished. One, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, is an entire meditation on the topic. I briefly referenced it a couple of posts ago, Metaphorical Coherence, for my delight in the phrase, "The subtle power of incoherence." The other two, The Ghosts of Heaven and Down the Rabbit Hole, are fiction and touch on the topic less explicitly, yet it is there. Relevant excerpts will follow this brief interlude from Cyanide & Happiness.

A few selections from The Ghosts of Heaven, which consists of four stories from four different eras. Each is a compelling, haunting meditation on human nature. Each has horror undertones, confronts suffering and misery. Each is distinct in style, tone, setting, and action. Each involves philosophical musings about the meaning of spirals in the way of Jungian archetypes:
You want to go back to the start. You want to go back to where you began. You want to find the happiness you once had. But you can never get there, because even if you somehow found it, you yourself would be different. You would have changed, from your journey alone, from the passing of time, if nothing else. You can never make it back to where you began, you can only ever climb another turn of the spiral stair. Forever.

It was, many people felt, in man's nature to explore, to expand, in short: to live. The desire to survive and prosper, it was argued, is the very meaning of life itself. It must go on, forever, without limit, and to deny that would be to deny life.

I have spent my life trying to fill my mind. I have spent it trying to fill the thing, and yet the more I learn, the more I realize still remains to be understood. . . . So I have tried to open my mind further, and to fill it further, and yet the process appears to be an infinite one, on and on, forever.

It is enough to know that not to know is enough.
It is enough not to know.

Not knowing is not as much a theme of Down the Rabbit Hole, yet it is there in two ways: there is much the narrator does not know, which means there is much the reader must figure out by adding their own knowledge to what he shares. Tochtli has spent his entire, spoiled life in relative isolation (I know maybe thirteen or fourteen people) in the remote mansion of his father, who is a very rich and powerful international drug lord. It's apparent his father has taught him to always be macho--never be a "faggot"--and all about the business of making corpses. It seems he's largely had to figure out everything else on his own. His musings include conclusions such as: Hair is like a corpse you wear on your head while you're alive. And the one that follows:
Books don't have anything in them about the present, only the past and the future. This is one of the biggest defects of books. Someone should invent a book that tells you what's happening at this moment, as you read. It must be harder to write that sort of book than the futuristic ones that predict the future. That's why they don't exist. And that's why I have to go and investigate reality.

Because it is the book's topic, I want to include my full review of Nonsense, including a pretty extensive list of quotes that I quite like. Here it is.

A fascinating book. One, I think, worth going back and studying, now that I’ve finished an initial read, to consolidate my understanding of key takeaways and contemplate best practices for applying them.

The book’s contents, in brief, as pulled from the prologue:

“This book argues that we manage ambiguity poorly and that we can do better.”

Part 1 “lay[s] the groundwork.”

Part 2 “focuses on the hazards of denying ambiguity” in personal, professional, business, and organizational situations, among others.

Part 3 “highlights the benefits of ambiguity in settings where we’re more challenged than threatened: innovation, learning, and art.”

“In an increasingly complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.”

Holmes provides an abundance of real life examples, research and studies, and synthesizing commentary to make a strong case. For my tastes he was a bit heavy on illustrative anecdotes and a bit light on analysis, but both were there.

I’m of a mind to let the book speak for itself, both because I think the insights are worth sharing in a short form for those who might not read the book and to help me start that closer study mentioned above. The first three, longer quotes do a good job summarizing the first two parts of the book. The rest come from the last part, focused on positively applying the earlier ideas. Unlike many books of this type, I found that last part the most exciting and compelling, especially the bits I’ve pulled out here.
The urge to resolve ambiguity is deeply rooted, multifaceted, and often dangerous. In times of stress, psychological pressures compel us to deny or dismiss inconsistent evidence, pushing us to perceive certainty and clarity where there is neither. Unpleasant anxiety can compel us to seize and freeze on ideas and beliefs in areas of life completely unrelated to the source of that anxiety.

We’ve seen how easily we can misinterpret genuine ambivalence as calculating duplicity. When we’re trying to pin down someone’s intentions—whether the person is an employee, a boss, a customer, or a friend—we need to realize that ambivalence is a more natural state of mind than we ordinarily assume. Wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time is so common that we might even consider it a baseline condition of human consciousness. When interpreting someone’s intentions, we should take into account that stressful circumstances make us more likely to ignore our natural human ambivalence.

Our need for closure is a powerful force. It’s so deeply ingrained in everyday living that cultivating an awareness of how it works isn’t enough. Combating its dangers means designing institutions and processes that make us less likely to succumb to our natural tendencies toward resolution when it matters most.

Another approach to helping students prepare for ambiguous challenges is to focus more directly on the emotions involved. A person’s comfort with confusion, the ability to admit that he or she is wrong, resilience, and the willingness to take risks are primarily emotional skills. Students have to grow comfortable not just with the idea that failure is a part of innovation but with the idea that confusion is, too.

Lasting knowledge earns its keep by allowing itself to be persistently questioned. In any field, we gain true confidence when we allow our ideas and successes to be continuously challenged.

The roots of prejudice can be traced to a general cognitive outlook characterized by the hunger for certainty.

Having an open mind doesn’t imply having no opinion. It often implies having both opinions. It means not denying the supposed contradiction that victims can be victimizers and vice versa, a simple truth that dogmatists refuse to accept. Such contradictions fuel . . . art. The open-minded person, likewise, cultivates those tensions.

Both empathy and creativity spring from the same source: diversity. Empathy, after all, is a fundamentally creative act by which we connect previously unimagined lives to our own. The path to embracing other cultures has to traverse the imagination. That’s why studies have shown that a high need for closure hurts creativity. And it’s why reading fiction—which puts us in other people’s shoes—can both lower our need for closure and make us more empathetic. Spending time among diverse social groups has the same effect.

Cultivating ambiguity helps us keep an open mind and empathize with different viewpoints and . . . contradictions are a kind of fuel for human imagination.

Take a guess as to how much you’ve changed over the last ten years on a scale from 1 to 10. Now, on the same scale, estimate how much you will change over the next decade. . . .

Most people, the psychologists wrote, “expect to change little in the future, despite knowing that they have changed a lot in the past.” We create a sharp division between our present, fixed self, and our past, evolving selves. We always think we’ve settled into ourselves, and we’re always wrong.

“The most interesting finding is that at every age, we feel like we’re done with our own evolution,” Quoidbach told me. “It’s like the present is what you’ve achieved after all those long years of changing. And now you’re done.”

For Chekhov, morality lay not in our relationships with what we know, but in how admirably we deal with what we don’t. . . . Chekhov showed that not knowing doesn’t leave us without a compass, in some relativist nether land. Owning our uncertainty makes us kinder, more creative, and more alive.

Perhaps most key in all of that, along with the ability to accept not knowing, is the ability to believe both opinions, even as they are seemingly contradictory. The ability to embrace contradiction and paradox. To accept that even as you understand things and know them to be true from your perspective and experience, that is only part of the story and there are other things that are true as well.

Finally, that different yet related thought about Westworld. I'm still digesting an article about the season finale from The Atlantic: Westworld and the False Promise of Storytelling. I have to admit I felt a little let down by the finale. Many of the key storylines were brought to what should have been satisfying conclusions, yet doing so meant resolving the "suspense of disorientation" that had been so enjoyably appealing. The conclusions made sense for the sake of the larger story being developed for future seasons, they just lacked that emotional oomph they should have had. The potential is very much there to build to something greater in the seasons that follow, but it does raise the question that had the story been told in a more traditional manner would it have had the same power and appeal. Is the core story any good or simply the manner of its telling? (Or is that an artificial distinction that can't really be made?)

Of course, the article's larger focus is on the final speech given by the mastermind behind it all. In it, he shares his dream of the park's participatory storytelling experience, where guests become immersed in the stories, being one that "ennobled" people. Instead, though, his experience had taught him that people's awareness of the artificiality of their surroundings caused them to give in to their baser natures. So he is starting the park down a new path, where the artificiality is gone. The artificial intelligences have become fully sentient and free, and the danger is now fully real and unpredictable. The article delves into the idea of determinism vs. free will, but I see that moment as setting up a future that will be entirely based on not knowing. The guests no longer have the assurance of safety and superiority, and no one--including they themselves--knows just what the hosts will become or be capable of. Instead of a storytelling structure that is disorienting, I hope it will develop into content that is so. And that in becoming a story about uncertainty it will achieve that ennobling end so desired.


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