What You Can’t See, What You Don’t Know

Let me paint a few pictures of a normal(ish), hypothetical Saturday for you:

You’re sitting on the beach, toes between the sand, breeze against your face. You gaze at the waves as they crash, producing that calming score as the white sea foam that races up the beach.

White…? Isn’t the ocean water some hue of blue? Ah, but something changes when the waves become foam. Oxygen is added, the sand and shells distribute other materials into the mix, something like that.

The real illusion is that there was no color to begin with. Waves of light have no color, they just are. Different frequencies of light, sure. But the blue of the ocean, the white tips of the waves are all created in your head. Any simple optical illusion is enough to prove that colors are not fixed but flexible, as unintuitive as it might seem. Your brain made a guess about the nature of the foam based on its characteristics and gave you white, that’s all. Indeed, our entire sensory experience is created entirely within our own minds and is subject to errors.

Trippy, right?

There is no triangle in this picture. Good luck convincing your brain of that.

Soon, you get invited to join a game of football on the beach. At one point, as you run around the ball is unexpectedly thrown your way with speed. Viewing it out of your periphery you throw your hands up and make the catch. You’re impressed by your reaction times.

Should you be? Well yes and no. Turns out even real-time isn’t good enough for your brain.

There’s a lag between what your eyes see, your brain processing that, and how quickly your brain can activate muscles to respond. Not good enough when there’s a tiger in the bush waiting to pounce. So, your brain is constantly predicting reality about a fifth of a second into the future. Every waking moment of experience is a mini-hallucination about a world that doesn’t quite exist yet.

Neat, huh?

Back home from the beach and thirsty from the sun and salty air you get the urge for a cold glass of lemonade. You open the fridge, pour yourself a glass, and indulge in the sweetness. Nice choice.

Was it a choice, though? Where did that urge come from? Did you choose to feel thirsty? How about your preference for lemonade?

That urge just arose, yes? It could’ve done nothing but. As an organic biological being, you have no choice but to have thirst. The lemonade, your preference for it could’ve come from any number of places. Your genetics, your childhood, the fact it was in the fridge at all, or seeing someone else have some earlier that day. Few of those factors you have much influence over.

In fact, repeated studies have shown that our unconscious minds can make decisions well before our conscious minds are aware of it. Additionally, all our choices are influenced by personality and context. Again, little control.

How in control of your thoughts and decisions are you, really?

Time for an afternoon game of Texas Hold-Em with your family. On one particularly intense hand, you and your parent have been raising and re-raising as it develops. As the last two cards are laid down, you begin to have doubts. “My hand was good to start, but they keep raising, maybe I should fold? No, I’m in too deep, and I can’t lose these chips for nothing. I have to see what their cards are. I’ll call their bet.”

Sound familiar? You fell victim to a common cognitive bias known as the “sunk cost fallacy”. We do it all the time. Nobody wants to get out of line for something after they’ve been waiting in it for too long, they’re invested. However, time is not something we can get back, and often money isn’t either. Once it’s gone, you should discount it and make decisions based on what will do you good in the present and future, not on the past.

This is one of the hundreds of cognitive biases that affect our decision making. In essence, they are ways in which we are predictably irrational. Over the millennia, our brains developed shortcuts to help us navigate life. Sometimes, these shortcuts get misused.

For example, it is usually a good mental shortcut to do what everyone else is doing. Like, in emergencies and you need to evacuate the building like everyone else. This goes wrong when we use that shortcut to form opinions like “Everyone else eats cake for breakfast, how bad can it be?”

Yes, even your basic instincts and intuitions are often wrong. Annoying, I know. (And if you find yourself saying, “Well, not me”. Yes, you. Especially you.)

Explore all of the different ways in which we make mental mistakes.

Later at dinner with your family, that all-too-familiar debate over politics breaks out. This time over taxation. As an educated and politically active person, you partake. You have beliefs about the role of individuals in a society, the roles that luck and circumstance play in people’s wellbeing, and examples to back it all up.

As the debate rolls on, you get frustrated at both your inability to persuade your uncle as well as the attacks on your point-of-view. Your belief comes from a place of objectivity, experience, and analysis. His probably comes from his upbringing and the conservative talk radio he consumes every day. To ourselves, it’s easy to rationalize/justify our opinions after they’ve formed. When we judge other’s beliefs, it’s with a much sharper eye than we do with our own.

We all have beliefs, mental models, about how the world works, and they are all meant to be useful. You have a mental model for how gravity works, and so avoid standing on tall ledges, useful. You also have models for how society works that are useful, like reciprocity and fairness.

Thing is, these all come from somewhere, and their usefulness is sometimes more about being useful for your ego and social standing than actually modeling the world accurately. As social animals, we need to signal beliefs to others that secure our standing with the in-group, or the group we identify ourselves with. (This explains why conservatives have rejected masks, despite their effectiveness and need. It signals to others in your group that you’re a true believer)

Your progressive politics, where do those come from? Not so much from your prefrontal cortex. How much you value equality and cultural diversity has more do with your innate personality and the environment you grew up in than anything.

While it may feel like you’re being a virtuous activist acting of your own volition when you argue with your uncle about tax policy, it’s usually more about massaging your ego and identity as someone who is smart, cares about poor people, and is a proud member of the group that does.

At this point, I imagine you’re feeling a little uncomfortable, even annoyed. Nobody likes being told that they’re not in control, that they’re illogical. This is exactly my point.

Most of us walk around every day, confident in the belief that we see and rationally act upon reality. We are secure in our beliefs, and we believe that we are in control of our choices. Similarly, we judge and hold others accountable for their beliefs and actions. We shame those with inaccurate or dangerous beliefs (climate deniers). We punish those who act against the common interest (criminals).

Ho-hum, just walking down the street, hallucinating reality.

We do so because it’s useful. It’s not practical to go about our days doubting everything. As fun as some of these thought-experiments are, it’s not exactly useful to go around trying to second-guess the greenness of the grass with everyone. And look at your Saturday — you enjoyed the beach, sports, cards, dinner, debate all thanks to the work your brain does for you, all in the background!

Plus, the conviction in yourself and your beliefs are useful, too. People rarely get ahead in life by saying “I’m not sure my new policy will work” or “I think I love you” or “Reality and free will are illusions, time is a construct, consciousness was a mistake”.

That usefulness has a limit, and we push past it every day. Increasingly, as the world evolves, our brains struggle to keep up. In a world where technology has made new information and lies spread much quicker, we need to be aware of how our brains interpret and act upon it.

Take stock of where the world is today. Intracultural conflict is everywhere. Spurred on by our easy access to information that forms new beliefs that we then attach to our individual and social identities. Once that happens, those beliefs are near-impossible to shake. It’s just too costly, either emotionally or socially, to do so. You’d have to admit that your reasoning was wrong, or abandon your group. Who wants to admit their stupidity or be lonely?

Qanon makes people feel special, intelligent, and part of a righteous cause. No wonder it’s thriving.

The point of all this is to introduce the different reasons we have for “epistemic humility” — or, the attitude of knowing you could very well be wrong. You probably woke up this morning, at least secure in the knowledge that the sky is blue. About that…

The tricky part is that these blindspots are well… blindspots. It is a frustrating aspect of our lives that we don’t know what we don’t know, and that our emotions and reasons for our decisions are so inaccessible to us.

It’s not easy or comfortable to sit with uncertainty, but we must. As we go through life and judge information, judge ourselves, and judge others, we need to do so with ample amounts of humility. We often mistake mental effortlessness for accuracy, but it’s exactly when our brains make quick judgments that we need to be wary that we’ve made a mistake in the process.

For the sake of argument, we all know people who go too far in the other direction and how annoying they are. People who are supremely over-confident and lacking self-awareness are the worst. There’s one glaring example in the news every day. (cough cough)

It’s also important not to shame people for admitting their ignorance, and/or changing their minds. There can be a heavy social cost to admitting to mistakes, which is why it’s rarer than doubling-down when confronted. Instead, congratulate people for having the capacity and courage to publicly change their minds.

The world is a messy, complicated place, and the only tool we have to interpret it is actually kinda shitty at doing so accurately. It’s got all of these bugs, and features that turn into bugs. With that in mind, I think it’s time to be more kind.

So, be more flexible in your beliefs, and be more generous in your evaluation of others' beliefs and behaviors. Take care to increase the awareness of your blind spots. Marvel in the fact that our brains are perhaps the most wondrous thing in all existence, but realize that they were slowly built to help us survive — not be truth-producing machines.

Next time you feel sure about your evaluation of something or someone, remember what you can’t see and what you don’t know.

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Thomas Sloan

Thomas Sloan

Hi. I’m Thomas. I like to think about thoughts, and then write for clarity. Not everything here is a fully formed belief. Let’s talk :)