The Bad Habits of Morality and Truth… or: Existential Ethics and Epistemology

Why am I writing this article?

Based on my personal experiences and my study of Earth’s history, human conflict usually involves the twin bad habits of claiming possession of absolute morality and absolute truth.  

These lofty concepts serve as poor substitutes for defining what we want and what we are willing to risk. As a result, other people don’t understand us, they feel threatened, we fail to negotiate effectively, and we may even lose sight of what we ourselves want. Everyone will be too busy fighting all the wrong battles to get anything done. 

Look around you and tell me that’s not what’s happening.

In my decade-long project to address the situation and help humanity move forward, I developed a three-step collaborative problem-solving process and a vocabulary of concepts to help use it effectively by simply describing what we want, what obstacles stand in our way, and what we are inclined to do about those obstacles. 

Future articles will walk through how I apply the three-step process, aided by the concepts in the Foundational Toolbox for Life.  

This article explores why the bad habits of claiming absolute morality and absolute truth is destructive, and the philosophical basis for recognizing more constructive approaches.  

Existentialism

I subscribe to the philosophy of existentialism, which can be summed up thusly: “A thing is as the thing does.”  Existentialists describe all things functionally—by the effects that we experience from them—rather than saying that things have any inherent nature or “essence” which might be good or bad, true or false.  

There’s an old quote that illustrates my point: “If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”  Duck is as duck does.  It may turn out to be different from a duck as we normally think of ducks, but we won’t know or care about that unless it starts doing things we don’t expect a duck to do, like emitting smoke and electrical sparks.  

Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte would say, “Ceci n’est pas un canard.”  Captain Jack Sparrow would agree, “No, much more better!  It is a *drawing* of a duck!”

Existentialists don’t care whether something is “truly” a duck so much as we care what it does or what it allows us to do.  If we care about ducks swimming around and flying instead of shorting out and exploding, then we can update our definition of what counts as a duck so that we’re talking about what really matters to us.  If you want to talk about duck-shaped things you can eat, you probably don’t want to use the word “duck” to mean things that short out and explode.  

It doesn’t matter right now anyway, because it’s wabbit season.

It might sound silly when we talk about obvious things like exploding ducks, but existentialism comes in very handy when we talk about invisible, intangible things like morality and truth, as we see below.  

Some of the effects we care about are more abstract than others, and more difficult to notice.  If air pollution makes it difficult for us to breathe, the effects might be subtle and vary from day to day, but they are still there.  When we experience them either directly or through measuring devices, that’s how we know something’s happening and how we can put a name to it.  Ultimately, if any given thing matters, it’s because it actually affects us in ways that we can experience somehow, in some situation now or in the future.  

If you keep asking the question, “So what?” you get very good at answering it.

Now that everyone is in the right frame of mind to think about existentialism (i.e. confusion and mild amusement) let’s see how it helps us approach our values and beliefs.  

Existential Ethics: What should we do?

Having seen the basics of existentialism, let’s take apart the bad habit of claiming absolute morality.  

Once we believe we know the “right” thing to do, there is no room for understanding or respectful disagreement, let alone compromise or—perish the thought—changing our minds.  Everyone who disagrees is evil and therefore merits punishment, or at least deserves no comfort.  Unfortunately, many people feel this way about mutually exclusive “right things” despite the impossibility that more than one of them is right (and the overwhelming likelihood that they are all somewhat silly).  

One thing leads to another, and before you know it the city is a smoldering ruin and yet somehow you *still* got a parking ticket.

The real tragedy is that all of these people think it’s possible to prove what other people “should” do without even knowing what everyone wants.  There is no such proof—only choice and consequence.  

However, just because moral certitudes don’t exist doesn’t mean we can’t judge people’s choices as constructive or destructive.  With that in mind, I’d like to replace this toxic certainty of “the right thing to do” with ethics, the constructive virtue that deals with conflict.  

People want things, but physical reality limits our ability to provide everyone with everything they want. We have options for what we do in response to those limitations.  The most constructive options are the ones that help us maintain society and allow us all to get more of what we want over time.  There are certain principles which help us make the most constructive choices, so we can build a world that we can all be proud of. 

For example, let’s take the classic question of whether it’s ethically permissible for an impoverished person to break the law by stealing bread to feed their starving family. 

“Thank you Inspector Javert; we know what you would say.”
“You know nothing of Javert!”
“…Alright, be that as it may—wait and see what is to come.  Ethics is not zero sum.”

You could argue that it’s destructive to let people steal without interference.  However, you could also argue that it’s destructive to let people starve.  Either way, you’d be right.  We don’t want to incentivize theft by permitting people to steal, but we also don’t want people to starve.  Neither of these outcomes is desirable.  

Luckily, these approaches to the situation aren’t the only ones.  There are many other options for enforcing laws against theft while ensuring people don’t starve, such as loaning people money until they can find a job to pay it back, maintaining social safety nets like unemployment insurance, universal basic income which supplies a minimum amount of money each month to live on while people figure out how to earn more, and/or vocational programs that set people up with the skills to earn a living doing something useful.  

I’m not here to promote any particular options (at the moment), but I am here to say that constructive ethics means seeking to make the situation better.  If we’re arguing over how to handle a conflict without looking towards building a future where similar conflicts are easier to solve or simply don’t happen in the first place, then we’re wasting our time.  

And to add insult to injury, getting your time sucked up by pointless conflict doesn’t even look impressive; it’s just petty and pathetic.  At least when you and your time get sucked into a black hole you go out with some glory.

As I said before, when we abide by ethical principles, the choices we make are not only sustainable in the long term, but often even get more and more of us more and more of what we want. That’s what makes ethics a constructive virtue. The choice isn’t “right or wrong” so much as it’s figuring out which options and principles are most constructive towards our values in the short and long terms, by their effects and by the precedents they set.  We choose what world we want to build and we take responsibility for all the effects of our choices. 

(If you want to raise the point that sometimes people want things that are bad for them or are otherwise somehow unhealthy or immoral, that’s a valid concern.  It’s covered by the liability of stagnation, the remedy for which is transcendence.  We can get to that in another article.  In this article we’re just focusing on the liability of conflict and its remedy of ethics.  Except now we’re done with that and moving on to epistemology.)  

And the rabbit hole continues, but I promise we’re headed somewhere worth going.

Existential Epistemology: What do we think we know, and why?

Introduction to Epistemology

Having addressed the bad habit of claiming absolute morality, let’s look at the bad habit of claiming absolute truth.  

When we look at ideological conflicts in Earth’s present, we see that opposing groups of people, those who push for society to make different risk tradeoffs in the face of the same evidence, frequently accuse their rivals of denying “the truth.”  “The truth” goes by many other names, including “the facts,” “the data,” and “the science.”  

On behalf of all scientifically-minded people, I admonish humans to stop taking the name of science in vain.

In their attempts to “win” their conflicts, people start throwing around evidence filtered through their own confirmation bias, instead of seeking ways to address the risks which are what each side actually cares about.  

Predictions

Objective scientific facts are a myth, but that’s not the same thing as saying that all statements are equally true. The process (and mindset) of science is about saying, “We did this experiment and this was the result. Here’s the simplest hypothesis that’s consistent with this result, and here are some other hypotheses which we think are also fairly likely.”  

That’s the extent of the “facts.” The hypotheses themselves aren’t “facts”–they’re collections of predictions. For example, you can’t have a fact that says, “This plant is safe to eat, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong.”  That’s not how “truth” works.  

What you can state as fact is, “The experiments I ran on this plant are consistent with the hypothesis that it is edible for humans.”  You can then make a prediction that if a human eats the plant, they will not die from it.  

But you still have to wait for the Food and Drug Administration to run their own experiments before you can change the label.

Risks

Every prediction comes with risks if people count on it being right and it turns out to be wrong, or vice versa.  To continue our example, the existence of allergies means that even our plant edibility prediction cannot be 100% certain for every human.  

People can choose which hypotheses to subscribe to based on the certain costs they’re willing to pay to abide by their predictions and the uncertain risks (and associated consequences) they are willing to accept if they’re wrong.  I can choose to eat a meal containing this hypothetical plant because I don’t think it’s worth me worrying about the possibility of an allergic reaction.  

(I wish it went without saying that even when you have “facts” about what is, that alone doesn’t prove what you “ought” to do.  What you “ought” to do about what “is” depends on what you want.  When multiple people want different things, see the Existentialist Ethics section above.)  

Confusion

However, the human brain usually translates the choice to subscribe to a hypothesis into the belief that the hypothesis chosen is “scientific fact” or “truth.” 

And just like with this sign, most people don’t notice there’s anything wrong until they take a serious look at it.

People often believe a statement is true not just because we think it’s likely, but also because it’s expensive or unpopular to believe it’s false, or because it’s pleasant to believe it’s true, or because we don’t stand to lose much if we’re wrong.  Do I believe a plant is safe for human consumption because everyone eating it seems to be healthy, or because all my friends eat it, or because it’s tasty, or because I feel confident in my health?  

Likewise, people often believe a statement is “false” not just because we think it’s unlikely, but also because it’s socially unpopular to believe it’s true, because it’s pleasant to believe it’s false, or because we will be greatly harmed if we rely on its predictions and they turn out to be wrong.  Do I believe a plant is unhealthy to eat because people I respect say it is, or because my body reacts badly to it, or because I’m very careful about my health?  

This is actually a perfect time to ask that most existentialist question, “So what?”

There’s limited processing power in a human brain, so it’s arguably normal and healthy to abbreviate these costs and risks as “facts” so we have more mental space free to get on with our daily lives.  

What’s not healthy is when someone else has abbreviated different risks into different “facts” and we call them fools instead of taking a step back and acknowledging our different situations that lead us to make different choices based on the same evidence.  Just because I’m willing to eat the plant doesn’t mean I’m entitled to expect everyone else to make the same choice.  

Different people are willing to pay different costs and take different risks.  Sometimes that’s just due to variations in personality, but sometimes those costs and risks are measurably different depending on each person’s situation and what they want.  

You and your neighbor might value the same potato at different numbers of coins.  There’s a centuries-old “spoon and pocket calculator” science trick you can try at home to find out!

Either way, that doesn’t mean that a hypothesis is “fact” for one person and not for another.  I could prepare for multiple mutually exclusive predictions being both true and false, but that doesn’t mean I believe any of them to be “facts” or “fake.”  Every hypothesis is still just a collection of predictions with some measured probability of being accurate or not in different situations.

Relevance

Often people will introduce “facts” into an argument that are worse than inaccurate: they’re irrelevant.  They make predictions that nobody cares about, because the person rattling off the “facts” doesn’t understand what the person they’re talking to does care about.  

When even the squirrel is falling asleep, you know that you’re losing your audience.

Remember the mantra of existentialism: “A thing is as the thing does.”  That phrase applies to everything.  Facts are as facts do.  Whether we treat a statement as “fact” or not depends on how well it helps us get what we want, through making accurate predictions about the world.  If it doesn’t help us get what we want, it’s called “trivia”—mildly interesting, perhaps, but we won’t get much mileage out of it.  

Sometimes a collection of facts might be helpful in one context but not in another.  Newtonian physics is “true” for most people’s daily lives and is much easier to learn and apply than Einstein’s general relativity, but it doesn’t accurately predict what happens when things get very fast, very massive, or very far away.  General relativity may be mere trivia when you’re driving a car, but we need it whenever we make or do something that goes beyond the context in which Newtonian physics is good enough.  

At least, I *hope* that general relativity is irrelevant to your operation of a car.

Alternatively, your fact about a tomato being a fruit might come in handy for you as a botanist, but it might be slightly less useful to your cousin who is a cook.  

The important epistemology skill we need to practice is figuring out how far our facts can take us before we want to pause, take a step back, and reevaluate the evidence available and the risks we choose to take—and ask others to take—based on it.  

Example: Ghosts

Here’s an example of how I would expect people to handle disagreements about facts in a healthy manner: 

I had a conversation with someone about the existence of ghosts.  At the end of the conversation, I acknowledged her experiences with the feelings and movements of objects within a house which led her to believe a ghost inhabited that house.  (The ghost hypothesis was supplemented with the evidence that after burning sage, the movements and feelings disappeared, which is consistent with how many ghost hypotheses predict that ghosts can be placated or removed from a house.)  

In retrospect maybe I also should have asked if the house looked like this.

I felt that this evidence in favor of the ghost hypothesis was contradicted by the lack of evidence of all the things I would expect to see if the ghost hypothesis was correct.  However, my conclusion that ghosts don’t exist is only a provisional one.  I will go about my life as if ghosts don’t exist until such time as I embark on a project that relies on the existence or nonexistence of ghosts, at which point I guess I’ll find out one way or the other.  

Many people all over the world go about their lives as though ghosts do exist, and if that knowledge helps them effectively handle situations they ascribe to ghosts, then at the moment I have no vested interest in attempting to convince them otherwise, and I have no ethical justification to demand they stop trying to solve their own problems in a way that works for them and doesn’t harm anyone else.  If our disagreement becomes a problem in the future, we can hash it out then, using the conflict resolution skills I’ve been writing about.  That’s the short version of my existentialist take on ghosts.  

I am rather disappointed that most of these people seem to have little interest in exploring the possible advantages of what may or may not turn out to be undetectable espionage, remote projection of physical force, unlimited energy, or the potential to become a ghost upon death, but that warrants another article entirely.

Conclusion

If we want to move forward as a society, we need to stop arguing about “the right thing to do” and “the truth” and start discussing what we want, the risks we are and aren’t willing to accept, and how constructive the different options are. Until we do, our civilization will remain dysfunctional.

For this reason, I will start posting articles showing how I approach applying these existential principles (and the constructive concepts and methods from my other articles) to the various conflicts that plague human society today.  

In the long term, to help build a world we can all be proud of, I aim to furnish society with the vocabularies we need to define and communicate constructive visions for the future.  Those are the first steps towards making our visions a reality.  At the moment I’m in the process of putting together a business model so that I can do this work full time.  The more people I can empower with Visionary Vocabularies, the more we can all accomplish.  

Stay tuned.

And by stay tuned, I mean please subscribe so you get notified of new articles, because this is the 21st Century.

Afterword

If you still have questions about these existential takes on ethics and epistemology or are still not sure why they are important, I invite you to share your questions or concerns in the comments below.  

If you already stand for these principles but appreciate how I explain them here, please comment below to let me know how helpful you found this article and anything that I can do to improve future articles.  

For that matter, if you already stand for these principles, please leave a comment just to let me and the handful of your fellow readers know that there’s more of us out there.  

The Inevitable Trolley Problem Article… Or: Setting a Better Precedent

This is relevant, I promise.  

You may have heard of the Trolley Problem.  You may have heard variations of the Trolley Problem.  If you’re a nerd like me, you may have seen internet memes and jokes about the Trolley Problem.  On the other hand, you may never have heard of the Trolley Problem, which is why I have to explain it before I can talk about it. 

I hope you’re happy.

What is the Trolley Problem?

(You can skip this section if you know what the Trolley Problem is and are sick of hearing it explained.) 

The Trolley Problem is an ethical conundrum presented as a thought experiment.  

Take the trolley to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe thought experiments! Jingle chime jingle ding!

It has several variations, but the most basic one I know of goes as follows: A trolley (or tram car, or some other vehicle on rails) is speeding out of control heading towards five people on the tracks, who cannot get out of the way.  Maybe they don’t know it’s coming and there is no way to warn them, or maybe some dastardly mustachioed villain has tied them there; it matters not.  

You (yes, you!) have the unique ability to save them, because you’re standing next to a lever that switches the trolley onto another track.  Easy heroics, right?  Not so much.  On that other track is a single person who will be killed if the trolley takes that track.  Do you let the trolley continue on its current path and kill five people, or do you pull the switch and kill the one person to save the five?  Which choice is more ethical? 

I Don’t Know. Which One?

(You can skip this section and the next one if you know what precedent utilitarianism is and are sick of hearing it explained.)  

My initial answer to this problem was that deciding not to touch the lever is not mere inaction, but a deliberate decision to kill five people to save one, and therefore ethically unjustifiable.  (In the basic Trolley Problem, we assume we don’t know who any of the people involved are, and so we can assume that each person’s life is on average of equal worth to that of each other.)  Therefore the ethical option would be to pull the lever and sacrifice the one to save the five.  

However, several years ago, someone brought up to me an analogous thought experiment that made me realize I was missing something very important in my approach to the situation.  

This is what my mind looks like as it changes.

Let’s say you have five people in a hospital who each need a different organ transplant.  Maybe one person needs a heart, two people each need a kidney, and two people each need half of a liver.  (Something like that, anyway—the exact organs don’t matter.  It could be a gallbladder, two tonsils, a spleen, and an appendix for all I care.)  Then you have a person walk into the hospital who happens to be a perfect donor for each of them.  Is it ethical to remove this healthy person’s organs to save those other five people, assuming that it would kill the one person and enable the other five people to live long and healthy lives?  Can we justify that?  

Suddenly the answer looks different, even though the situation is functionally the same: five people who are on track to die versus one person who would otherwise live.  What’s our justification for not sacrificing the one to save the five?  

One superficial answer is that a person has the right to not have people steal their organs.  They may also have the right to not have other people steer trolleys into them which wouldn’t otherwise have hit them.  

And yet thousands of hearts are stolen each year by doggies such as this one.  How adorably inconsiderate!

Those rights both sound nice, but they also seem overly specific.  How did we come up with them?  We can’t just make them up because they feel good, after all.  You might as well say that a person has the right to have their life saved if the process of saving them results in fewer total deaths, which means that they might actually be entitled to steal other people’s organs under certain circumstances.  That would give us a right that directly contradicts another right. Which one wins?

We really ought to have some generalized ethical principle that allows us to figure out when and how these sorts of rights apply in a situation.  As it turns out, there is at least one that seems to work. 

So What is This Ethical Principle? 

As far as I can tell, the ethical principle relevant to the Trolley Problem is referred to as “precedent utilitarianism.”  I’d argue it’s relevant to most (if not all) ethical decisions, though not many people talk about it for some reason.  

Maybe because the name is hard to remember?

For reference, the (non-precedent) pure utilitarian approach to the Trolley Problem would be to pull the lever, steal the organs, and thereby maximize the number of people who live.  People generally want to stay alive, so the more people who stay alive, the more utility there is.  

By contrast, precedent utilitarianism is a bit more forward-thinking than that.  It looks at the precedent we establish by steering trolleys into people or stealing organs.  (Hence the name.)  If we decide that it’s acceptable to actively interfere in situations to sacrifice a few people in order to save many, that sounds good at first, except that now the many people we saved will live in a world where each of them in turn can and will be sacrificed at a moment’s notice if at any point in the future they find themselves on the side of the few.  And they know that.  That’s what setting a precedent means.  

And if you can take someone’s very life to save the lives of others, you can certainly commandeer their labor because you have a more worthy purpose for it.  You can force them into servitude to maximize efficiency.  

And what kind of life is that?  Everyone would live in terror, afraid to be judged of less worth to society than someone else, for fear their effort and organs would be seized so that that other person could make “better” use of them.  Most people would be so focused on contributing to society that they would never be able to actually enjoy those contributions, making the whole thing pointless.  Some enclaves might wander away and focus on creating and owning as little of worth as possible so that no one will seek to take from them.  

Building themselves a single-room block cabin with only 5 square inches of floorspace.

And who would have the authority to measure and compare people’s relative worth anyway?  I wouldn’t trust humans to reliably recruit honorable people for that purpose.  The whole thing would become a charade for the benefit of those in power.  

Much like the Trolley Troll, who makes trolley passengers pay a Trolley Troll toll or else he steals their organs and pulls a lever to make the trolley run over five people.

That’s the precedent set when we decide it’s right to deliberately sacrifice someone in order to save someone else.  You can qualify the rule by saying it’s only acceptable for emergencies, which might work in some circumstances depending on what’s at stake, but you’ll have to nail down the border between what is and isn’t an emergency, and there will always be some blurry gray area to it.  However, we need not get into those details at the moment.  

Conversely, if we establish a precedent or rule that says it is wrong to sacrifice someone for someone else’s benefit, then all people can live their lives trusting that they are safe from having their lives and freedom taken from them.  We can feel secure in building up ourselves and contributing to society.  We can enjoy what we create and share it more freely with others when we don’t fear being compelled to do so.  

(I should clarify that this train of reasoning isn’t meant to be an argument against taxation, or against counteracting the buildup of power imbalances.  There are other ethical principles that come into play in those situations and affect how we define people’s various rights.  For example, if a company’s business model relies on creating power imbalances which produce more Trolley Problem situations, they probably don’t have a right to do so without interference.  In just a bit we’ll look at some tools we can use to work through those situations.) 

So Why is This Relevant Now? 

…I did promise, didn’t I?  Wait just a few more paragraphs, because this is where I prepare to blow your mind. 

Try not to be overwhelmed with chalk.

Let’s change the Trolley Problem to be a bit more reflective of real life.  You’re at the switch, and I’m walking along the track with the one person on it, tied to the track with rope.  We both see the trolley headed towards the five people.  I happen to be friends with the five people who are on track to die, so I yell at you to pull the switch.  You refuse, because you’re friends with the person who’s tied up next to me and you want them to live.  I have a pocket knife that can cut through rope, but I don’t have time to run all the way to the other track and cut all five of my friends free before the trolley runs them over.  

What’s the obvious thing we should do here?  I’ll give you a few minutes to think. 

Alright, time’s up.  

What I should do is start cutting the ropes of the person next to me, and while I do that, I’ll shout over to you that it’s safe to pull the lever and send the trolley to this track because in just a minute there’s going to be nobody tied to it.  When you see I’m freeing your friend, you should pull the lever.  My friends get saved because you’re willing to pull the lever, and you’re willing to do that because I made it so that saving my friends would not doom yours.  

It should be an easy solution: neither of us really wants anyone to die, and none of our friends want to die, and lo and behold, nobody dies.  Everyone wins.  Maximum utility.  

The utility graph goes up, and up, and it’s away!  The crowd goes wild!

This isn’t just fantasy, either. It happens in real life, in situations big and small.

For example, once upon a time I was working on a college group project with about three other people in a dormitory where some of us were living.  We were in a time crunch, so we were very stressed and hurrying to get it done.  

At one point, one of the group members got hungry and wanted to leave to get food.  The other group members didn’t want him to leave, because we needed his work in order to finish the project before the deadline.  That was a zero-sum approach: either he left and we lost time, or he stayed and was hungry and upset and might not do a good job.  Either way there would have been a pointless fight and damaged relationships.  

However, I knew that what the hungry group member actually wanted was food, not to leave.  Considering our options beyond the two already mentioned, I suggested that one of the other group members could offer some food from his own supply, since we were already in his room.  Then the hungry group member could eat and work at the same time. This met with unanimous approval, and so the problem was solved.  

That’s what it looks like when you pull the lever but untie the one person on the other track before they’re run over. Now think about how much that scales up.

You may have also heard of people fighting over portions of a metaphorical pie when they could be making the pie itself bigger.  However, I think the Trolley Problem is a more compelling image for my purposes, even if the metaphor goes off the rails more easily.

So What’s the Mind-Blowing Part? 

Not impressed yet?  Tough crowd.  Very well, then.  

The Trolley Problem is relevant because real life isn’t like the Trolley Problem, but we’re treating it as though it is.  Not only that, but we’re still getting the wrong answer by forcing others to make the tradeoffs we think they should make.  We compete to dictate what costs should be paid and what risks should be taken, and by whom.  We’re trying to sacrifice each other through coercion and deception to get what we want instead of considering that people might be willing to help us out if we helped them get what they needed.  Instead of working together to figure out how to save everyone, we’re still arguing about which people we should allow the trolley to run over.

The ethical principle of precedent utilitarianism is a factor in my belief that we can only build a better world if we practice dealing with such conflicts without sacrificing each other.  We need to learn to think constructively and put in a bit of extra effort to create an outcome acceptable for everyone, instead of just taking what we think we’re owed.  

I don’t know about you, but I’m not giving up until everyone wins.  

We’re going to have to build the trolley tracks that take us out of this tunnel.

Oh, Really?  You and What Army?

Army isn’t quite the right word, but to answer your question, Skeptical-Section-Headers-Standing-In-for-the-Reader… you, I hope. 

wait what.

Don’t sell yourself short.  You wouldn’t be here unless you thought that the world could be better and that you might have a role to play in that.  

You want to stand up against polarization and extremism, against people trying to sacrifice each other for the sake of their own tradeoffs?  You want to help people understand each other and cooperate to build a world with fewer cruel tradeoffs?  I’ve got the tools you need.  Stay tuned.  

Much more organized than this, but I’m slowly learning the value of the human art of maintaining a dynamic mess.

Creation Story: Liabilities… or: An Existentialist Allegorical Cosmogony

(Many thanks to those who provided feedback on earlier versions of this story.)

This is the tale that the people of my planet tell our children about how the universe came to be.

In the beginning, there was a great mass of undifferentiated experience, the formless substance of consciousness. The only thing that existed was the sensation of nothingness. 

Then, the mass of experience split into two halves, the material and the motivational: that which is the world, and that which brings purpose to the world. These two halves split yet again, each one forming a known part and an unknown part. 

These four pieces of the universe’s consciousness became four primordial siblings. 

The first sibling was Lakh, of the material known. He decided to create an environment to replace the nothingness that surrounded the siblings. He began by establishing a vast space. This space he filled with matter, and forces which set that matter into motion and shaped its paths. From these ingredients Lakh fashioned planets, spheres of matter held together with force. He created stars that collected matter and ejected it with enormous amounts of energy, to bring splendid illumination to the planets. Finally, he locked planets into orbit around the stars, and set everything to revolve around the center of the galaxy like clockwork. 

To keep everything contained to its original shape and moving on track as a perfect machine, Lakh had formed all of the matter and forces in the new universe into barriers. Every barrier of matter or force would stop anything from crossing it unless the cost of passage was paid. However, these barriers combined formed a larger barrier: a lifespan for the universe. 

The blazing hot stars would one by one run out of energy. They would fail to pay the cost of burning and would burn themselves out. As planets moved, they passed through clouds of gas and dust that extracted tiny fees, and eventually they would lose momentum and spiral into their local stars. Over billions of years, the clockwork would wind down and ultimately collapse. 

Satisfied with his work nonetheless, Lakh adopted the title of Tolltaker, the bringer of stability. 

The second sibling was Niyu, of the material unknown. She looked at the intricate and predictable world that Lakh had created and saw that it was stark, harsh, and perpetually declining. She decided to add novelty. Taking the barriers and mechanisms Lakh had set up, Niyu concealed them in layers upon layers of mystery, so that even Lakh himself forgot where some of them were. She drilled secret passages in the barriers and fashioned keys so she could pass through them without paying the cost. Many of these keys Niyu made from chemical substances, tiny particles of matter bound together in structures that both changed and were changed by the matter and energy that they touched. With these chemicals, Niyu could dissolve a rock using a fraction of the force it would take to smash it. 

Eventually growing bored with subtlety, Niyu took some of the clockwork pieces of the galaxy and pushed them onto collision courses with each other, causing chain reactions that warped or shattered entire regions of the mechanical universe and made its future unpredictable. Stars would sometimes explode rather than burning out, and the matter that they ejected as gas could gradually come back together and someday reignite, restarting the cycle. Many of the events Niyu set in motion would damage the universe, but some would allow parts of it to become even more magnificent than they could have been otherwise. 

Proud of her work, Niyu adopted the title of Trickster, the bringer of discovery. 

The third sibling was Sehrt, of the motivational known. She looked at the universe and judged that it was lifeless and without purpose. On planets of barren rock and caustic seas, Sehrt approached the chemicals on the ocean shores and taught them how to become living things, and create more of themselves. She built these chemicals into cells, and these cells she taught to build species. She shaped them into flourishing plants and great trees, diligent and resourceful fungi, insects that crawled and flew, and slithering creatures of the deep ocean. She filled the day and night with beasts large and small that walked on the land, flew over it, or tunneled under it. All these species in turn she taught to feed and to multiply across their entire worlds. 

Upon each species she bestowed a path to follow, a mission for the species to fulfill as its role in spreading life to every corner of its planet. The plants collected energy from sunlight and nutrients from the ground and the atmosphere. Herbivorous animals ate the plants and carried their seeds across the world. Carnivorous animals ate other animals to cull their populations, using their sharp teeth and claws to tear apart the prey which obediently came and bared their throats when they heard a predator call. The fungi and scavenging animals recycled the bodies of living things that died, whether that death came from the teeth of an animal, or one of Niyu’s accidents, or one of Lakh’s barriers that they couldn’t cross. Every living thing knew its place and purpose in the ecosystem, and by their efforts those ecosystems expanded to cover their native planets in abundant life. 

Pleased with her work, Sehrt adopted the title of Warden, the bringer of identity. 

The fourth sibling was Vaayur, of the motivational unknown. He looked at the living things obeying the paths marked for them by Sehrt, and judged that they were not worthy entertainment and certainly not worthy company. He split the paths that living things followed, setting crossroads before them so they were forced to deny one mission in order to fulfill another. Some of the paths he twisted around to intersect each other, so that the living things that followed different paths ended up at odds. Prey animals began to flee or fight for their lives in the face of predators, and predators were forced to give chase and subdue their prey or else starve. 

As species struggled ruthlessly against one another for survival, they developed weaponized bodies and behaviors with which to attack and to defend themselves. Even individuals within the same species began to defect from what was once their shared mission, and to viciously battle their kin. Each planet became an arena of violent and ceaseless competition. 

Eagerly anticipating the results of his work, Vaayur adopted the title of Rival, the bringer of choice. 

The eons ticked by, marked by the orbits of Lakh’s stars and planets, generations of Sehrt’s creatures, and the occasional catastrophe courtesy of Niyu. Vaayur was overjoyed when eventually a species arose whose members could see the full breadth of paths facing them. He gave them more and more paths at every turn, until their missions, originally supreme and steadfast, splintered into a dizzying myriad of eccentric desires and fleeting whims. 

With these desires Vaayur set the members of his chosen species against each other, in an endless contest of force and wit, combat and deception, in the hopes that they would learn and grow strong and one day take the place of the primordial siblings, endlessly remaking the world in the image of their own preferences. 

That species became us. As long as our civilization has existed, we have made do with the world and the tools that the primordial siblings have given us. We have accepted their gifts of stability, discovery, identity, and choice—the gifts that make us what we are. And we have endured the liabilities that come with these gifts: scarcity, disaster, stagnation, and conflict, from which spring endless suffering and pointless struggle and death beyond reckoning.

Over the centuries, we have worked to remedy the toxic liabilities in the primordial siblings’ gifts. By learning and practicing the four constructive virtues of investment, preparation, transcendence, and ethics—each one in itself an endless font of stories—we become part of the eternal scaffold of a civilization with ever-increasing prosperity, safety, vitality, and harmony. Each day, our people inherit a world more hospitable for us and for the people we want to become.

And that is the story we tell of the creation of the universe. Oftentimes, you may find it more useful than the truth. 

Observation Mindset: Part 1

When you use mindsets, your mind applies filters to the information your senses provide you. These filters create “maps” of particular aspects of the “territory”—in other words, mental models of reality. Your mind then uses these maps to make predictions about how best to navigate and influence the territory to achieve the outcomes you want. The basic mindsets are processes that create different kinds of filters which in turn create different types of specialized maps.

There’s another very important mindset, though, that I didn’t realize existed until years after I cataloged the basic mindsets. There’s so much I’d like to say about it that I ended up splitting this article into two parts; Part 2 should hopefully follow not too long after this one.

Observation mindset, the zeroth mindset, has a unique approach to filters and maps. It uses guessing and checking to remove as many filters as possible, from both the distinct and subliminal modes. It puts aside most types of map, and looks at the territory as directly as possible. 

The process of using observation mindset clears away the maps created by other mindsets, suspending their judgments and assumptions, and allows your mind to become aware of everything about the immediate situation. It brings you back to the present. In this way, observation absorbs moments

When you use observation mindset, the process of guessing roves over the most basic map fragments and holds them up to the territory, and the checking process judges not only their accuracy, but also how simple they are. It screens out the possibilities and implications that other mindsets attach to the situation, creating a map that does nothing more than turn raw neural impulses into coherent sensations. 

Through the repeated guessing and checking process, things like clothing regress into shapes of cloth, which regress into visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory data. The maps that observation mindset creates from these absorbed moments describe everything about the moment and nothing beyond it. In Part 2 we’ll talk about how this process can be used on its own and combined with other mindsets. 

The guessing and checking processes in observation mindset function in both the subliminal and distinct modes, and enable the two modes to better interface with each other. 

What’s it like to use observation?

Here’s what it looks like when you apply observation: 

First, you experience sensory input, such as using a leaf blower. 

Next, some mindset that you’re running applies guesses and checks and comes up with a map to describe that stimulus in a particular way. For example…

  • Operation would tell you how to use it effectively. 
  • Organization might tell you the things you need a leaf blower for, or who you could sell it to. Analysis would tell you how it works. 
  • Synthesis might tell you that it reminds you of a cyborg arm-cannon, or lead you to daydream about blowing away rush hour traffic. 
  • Semantics could tell you what model it is and who it was made by. 
  • Empathy could tell you how people would feel about it (or whether it needs some coaxing to get started). 
  • Strategy could tell you how to avoid breaking it. 
  • Tactics could tell you of other practical yet unorthodox uses like drying clothes.
How can someone possibly have fun with a leafblower? Our giant cameras will show us the answer.

Then observation mindset peels back all of those thoughts surrounding the leaf blower, putting away the maps created by other mindsets. It uses guessing and checking to find the most rudimentary maps that match the territory and pushes aside the rest, so you can experience the leaf blower as directly and without bias as possible. Not as a tool, or a resource, or a system, or a world of possibility. Not even as a leaf blower—that’s a semantic label. 

With observation mindset you can get as close as possible to the territory that is the leaf blower. You can see its color, and the areas on its surface that are shiny or dull. You can feel the texture and thermal conductivity of the materials that you’ve forgotten are called plastic and metal. The shape of the handle and the nozzle, the tension of the rope start, the weight and how it carries, the sound it makes, the blast of hot air, the smell of the fossil fuels partially burned… Everything that you might normally filter out or overlook becomes available for you to notice. 

As another example, you might skim over a written sentence and read it one way, but then you notice that it doesn’t match your expectations and do a double-take. (“We took the elephant up one floor.”) When you read it over more carefully, without the filters that were letting you skim it quickly, you realize that you had read one of the words wrong. (“We took the elevator up one floor.”) Your skim-reading map gave you incorrect information about the word, so you had to remove the map and start from scratch. 

Wait, this sentence really does say, “We took the elephant up one floor.” What does that mean… oh.

Connecting the subliminal with the distinct

You may be wondering how observation mindset lets you deal with the subliminal mode in any way, as I mentioned earlier. After all, the whole point of the subliminal is that you can’t directly observe it or affect what it does. (If you’re not wondering this, feel free to skip to the next section.) 

The key word in that sentence is “directly.” Exploring and influencing subliminal processes is always indirect, and observation mindset is no exception. 

To figure out what the subliminal mode is doing, you can observe each thought and conclusion that you come to and figure out which ones have a train of thought that can be traced back to a particular source of input. After you have used observation to identify everything in your current mental state that originated from a distinct process, everything that remains must have come from a subliminal process. 

Even when our subliminal mode creates subtle feelings, impressions, and distortions of our thought patterns instead of specific conclusions, observation mindset can notice this output by remembering and comparing our reasoning processes in different contexts or under different emotions. 

That’s not quite good enough for our purposes, though. We also want to know what prompted these subliminal processes to give us certain conclusions. To do that, you can observe all of the input from the world around you, and from your memories and other thoughts, and deliberately focus on one of them to see what associations it prompts. By deliberately focusing on the feedback that you feel from sensations and thoughts, it is possible for you to piece together what your subliminal mind is responding to, at which point analysis mindset can help you figure out likely reasons for its responses.

You can tell what the water is doing by the way the tree’s reflection changes.

As far as influencing subliminal processes using observation mindset goes, it’s the same as getting the subliminal to do anything: have the distinct mode practice a technique consistently and with reliable feedback, and the subliminal will pick up the pattern. 

You don’t always have to actually perform an action in order to train it into your subliminal processes, though. Your distinct mode can also feed your subliminal mode thoughts about what the input is and thoughts about what the output should be, to associate those together in the subliminal mode. Think of it as training the subliminal mode with simulation data. Observation mindset makes this training easier by giving you a better sense of what the subliminal mode is already doing and enabling you to clear your mind of noise and deliberately focus your thoughts on a particular stimulus and response in order to develop a subliminal association between them.

You can also counteract distortions in your thought patterns by remembering what you have observed of your thought patterns under different circumstances, and either accounting for the distortions (e.g. acknowledging you feel something is more or less likely than it actually is) or imagining a different context and getting the subliminal mode to accept it as input so it will produce different feelings as output. 

The learning and application attitudes

Observation mindset is not a binary, on/off state. Like all other mindsets, it has a shape. The trick is to direct observation towards the most useful aspects of your life. It’s somewhat like breathing. Everyone breathes, but when you breathe skillfully and you recognize when to set aside a moment to focus on breathing, it helps you better face the world. 

Although observation seems mutually exclusive with other mindsets because it counteracts their filters, it is actually an invaluable supplement to all other mindsets individually and collectively. 
You may have noticed that you have a learning attitude and an application attitude, and what you do with new information depends on what attitude you’re using.

In the learning attitude, you’re still figuring things out, still building and calibrating your map. When you encounter a part of the territory that doesn’t match your map, you’re more likely to assume that your map is wrong or incomplete and needs to be updated, rather than assuming that something unusual is happening in the territory. You hesitate to make predictions, and the predictions you do make are uncertain, because you work with the premise that there is much you don’t know.

In the application attitude, you’ve got plenty of experience and your map is well and solidly formed. You make many predictions, with more certainty, and commit to decisions based on them. When you encounter a mismatch between the map and the territory, you’re more likely to count on the map being correct and frame the mismatch from that perspective: it may be an insignificant anomaly, or a defect in the territory compared to how it ought to be. 

When you enter an unfamiliar context, your mindsets will usually start out in a learning attitude, absorbing as much information as possible with as few assumptions as possible, but over time the map you build of that context becomes better calibrated and more trusted. You can use it with greater ease and confidence. Your attitude gradually transitions from learning to application. 

Occasionally a large mismatch between the map and the territory, one that stymies the predictive process, may force your mindsets to go back to the learning attitude and correct the map. By default, though, mindsets with extensive maps will attempt to use them anywhere that seems familiar. However, some familiar-looking situations may be different enough that application fails. 

When the territory changes in a way that is not obvious, that’s when application becomes a dangerous attitude. Even a subtle change can throw off your predictions significantly, but a mindset in the attitude of application may not recognize it. That’s where observation mindset comes in. 

Imagine if maps were never updated after this one was made.

Observation mindset deliberately engages other mindsets in the learning attitude, forcing them to review their maps before they make any further predictions. You can intentionally relearn and recalibrate to varying degrees depending on what you think the situation calls for. 

Sometimes you only need to reevaluate a few mistaken assumptions, and sometimes you may just want to leave observation mindset running to keep an eye on changing aspects of a mostly-stable situation. If you find yourself losing your way, though, you may want to user observation mindset to a greater degree by taking some time to shed your accumulated maps and conclusions and start from scratch. 

This concludes the theoretical overview of observation mindset. In Part 2 we’ll look at how to use it and its advantages and disadvantages. 

The Missing Pieces

I’ve noticed I keep hitting a wall when trying to finish articles (I’ve several still in the works, some nearly done).  Recently, I figured out why.  

All this time, I’ve been trying to write self-contained articles that would stand on their own.  I’ve been aiming for a clinical and detached approach, with all the context necessary for a person to see all sides of a situation or all aspects of a concept.  Each article was to be a crystal of robust information that anyone could absorb and apply without misunderstanding. 

Pictured: Visual metaphor for a robust information crystal that avoids misunderstanding.  (Clarification: This is actually an image of a rock.  Do not try to physically absorb rocks like this one into your body through any means.)

Unfortunately, while that’s a good way to write reference material, it’s not a very efficient way to reach people in order to build and maintain a community.  I don’t know how well my existing articles have succeeded at what I meant them to be, but I can’t make all my articles like that, because I can’t do it fast enough or consistently enough for it to be relevant.  

As such, going forward more the articles on this blog will have more of my own perspective in them.  I’ll trust you to recognize that although I try to see and acknowledge as many perspectives as possible, I can’t collect all the information to do them all justice, and to recognize that I recognize that.  

My articles are incomplete.  If it’s even possible to make a complete, authoritative article on anything, it’s not the best use of my time.  

Neither is getting a bunch of stopwatches in different colors and starting them all at the same time to see if the red ones really do go faster.  But I digress. 

Right now, I want to be able to write a quick perspective on an issue and trust that all my readers know there are other important perspectives out there that deserve attention as well.  I’ll aim to spell out this expectation in each article, but stating it here will allow me to proceed with confidence.  

I may write about a basic concept, but I can’t know all the manifestations of that concept, or all the ways you can apply it.  I may even be overlooking some fundamental aspects of the concept.  It’s happened before, and I still have to go back and update some articles accordingly.  

I may write about my perspective on a situation, but I’ll always be missing some experiences and values from the people involved, and some information about the factors in play.  

I may write about my approach to solving a problem, but I’ll very probably lack some of the skills and expertise involved to implement that solution, or deal with the inevitable unexpected obstacles that come up.  

I may even change my mind and retract something that I said earlier. After all, I have biases informed by the way I think and the experiences I’ve had, so I actively question things I feel certain about as much as I can.  It is fairly easy to prompt me to update my perspective on a situation, if you ever feel the need.  The kinder you are, the easier it is, though I can’t guarantee that my perspective will exactly match yours after I update it.  

But if I’m just going to change my mind, what’s the point in publishing my perspective?  If I don’t have all the answers already, why am I writing at all?  

I can see that you, dear reader, like to ask the key questions, like, “What does this key go to?”

So what’s the point of this blog, then?

If the articles on this blog aren’t going to be comprehensive takes on the concepts and situations they deal with, what makes them worth your time or mine? 

Simple: They’re insufficient, but still necessary.  Each of my articles is food for thought, but it’s only part of a complete breakfast.  

Along with—apparently—dish soap, two dimensional bananas and avocados, and a bowl that violates the laws of visual perspective.  No wonder it’s spilling!

I write because I think that my perspective and approach is a critical element that people are missing.  I don’t have the completed puzzle, but I found some pieces that fell under the table while everyone else was fighting over which of their puzzle pieces was the full picture.  All I want is for people to use the pieces I’ve got to join together the pieces they already have.  

Why do I think my approaches are missing pieces that you should read about?

It’s a bold claim to say that I have some important pieces.  What makes me so certain I’ve got anything the world needs?  

Well, for a start, I can tell there’s something missing.  Time and time again I see that people who are trying to change the world fail to express what they’re doing in terms of fundamental values that other people can understand.  Instead, they use superficial phrases or unnecessarily complex technical explanations, valid or not.  

These would-be world-changers focus on many different aspects of the world, and they usually define the scope of their goals narrowly enough that they don’t see the point in collaborating with each other.  However, if they saw the underlying problems and overarching goals that they have in common, they could pool some resources to deal with those and advance all of their causes more effectively.  They’d also have more luck with maintaining the integrity of their institutions: humans usually have trouble connecting the abstract with the concrete, so lofty ideals tend to evaporate where the rubber meets the road.  

Furthermore, the way we define our goals can make it difficult to explain to other people what the goals are and why they are important.  A tremendous source of fear and mistrust between modern humans is that a human can’t count on being able to explain their values to another human so that the other human can empathize and appreciate those values.  There’s a pervasive fatalistic sense of “either they understand or they don’t,” with the implicit dread of having to violently defend your values from belligerent parties who don’t share those values.  

Finally, the methods we use can also be hard to describe simply, which means that unless you are familiar with a particular field of expertise, it can be almost impossible to tell which methods are trustworthy and which are not.  In turn, it becomes almost impossible to hold experts from mechanics to medical specialists to the media accountable for speaking in good faith about what they see and do.  People end up trusting those who signal they’re part of the same team, which is why “fake news” exists (or doesn’t, depending on who you believe) and why people forget to distrust journalistic interpretations of experts. 

Fun bit of trivia: Recognizing that the media gets your own area of expertise wrong but forgetting about that when you read something else is called Gell-Mann amnesia, coined by Michael Crichton. 

All these unnecessary problems arise from the inability to communicate clearly about goals and methods.  Instead of working together, people fear and mistrust each other.  

That’s why I feel confident in stating that human society is missing a vocabulary necessary to define and communicate these ideas.  

As for why I think I have these missing pieces, I’ll just present some perspectives and approaches to various situations and let you be the judge of whether the pieces I offer can help us work together to build a world we can all be proud of. 

So we can turn our jumble of pieces…
…into a cohesive and integrated world. 
…And maybe eventually into a portal to wherever we want to go. Who knows?

In Defense of Understanding

I’d like to take some time here to address potential concerns about articles I will write in the future.  

My current goal is to help people understand each other on points of political conflict.  I chose this goal because I am fairly certain that we can only build a world we can all be proud of if we can compare notes with each other on what we want, what we need, and what we fear.  Only by understanding each other enough to compare notes can we combine our strengths to create a constructive and sustainable path forward for our world.  

In pursuit of this goal, I will be writing articles about specific social issues and situations that drive conflict, and how the different groups involved in these conflicts can learn to understand each other enough to resolve the conflict.  In the process, I will be taking a few risks.  

Still no using deconstruction mindset with heavy machinery, though. 

Generalizations

To start with, my future articles will make statements about what different groups of people value and fear in different situations.  These statements are generalizations.  They are food for thought, to get you to think about perspectives you may not have considered.  They are not going to be accurate for all people at all times.  

As such, I don’t want any of you using what I write as a substitute for listening to people and reading what they have to say about what they believe.  What I expect is that you will use what I write to open your minds so you have an easier time getting to know the people you need to work with.  

If you have any questions, I recommend you reach out to a political opponent who’s willing to go into more detail about what they value and believe, or at least point you in the right direction.  There are more of them than you think.  

If you want to add your own perspective regarding your group’s values and fears on an issue I’ve written about here, please comment or contact me.  

It’s not my intention to put anyone in a box.

Fear of understanding

The next risk I take is that my articles may scare people by introducing the idea that their political opponents are not fundamentally different from them, that they have understandable reasons for what they value, what they believe, and what they do in response.  I would like to address the fears related to this idea right now. 

Empathy: It’s not just a word in translucent letters superimposed on a rainbow Spirograph tracing.

Understanding versus agreement

Firstly, just because I describe my understanding of a group of people does not mean I agree with their beliefs, their goals, or their methods.  I will frequently empathize with the perspective of a group I disagree with, because it’s almost always necessary in order to figure out how to stop them from causing harm.  (My next step is usually to figure out how they can get what they want without causing harm, and it’s easier when I consider that they may accept something other than what they ask for, if it fulfills what they want in a way they hadn’t realized.) 

I do not advocate for moral relativism either, at least not the kind that denies our ability to recognize, condemn, and oppose unethical behavior.  I believe that there are objective principles of ethics that exist outside of subjective reference frames.  If there is any disagreement on what those principles are, I want to investigate the possibility that I may be wrong so that I can learn to be more ethical.  

In brief, I define ethical behavior as constructive for individuals and for society, and unethical behavior as destructive for the same.  Some situations entail tough choices and no obvious right answers, but the concept of ethics is still meaningful as a direction to strive for. 

Losing your way

Secondly, you may fear that people may read what I write and abandon your definitions of what is and is not ethical.  You may even fear that will happen to you.  

I don’t want to trick or confuse you into doing unethical things or failing to stand up for ethics.  If you do end up changing your mind about what you believe and value, I want you to make that decision with your whole self, and full awareness of the significance and reasoning behind your decision.  

Likewise, if you feel that what I say is leading people astray from some important value, please reach out to me and help me understand your values and fears better so that I can help others understand and work with you and your values, as I expect you to understand and work with them and theirs. 

And if you ever start seeing something like this, lie down and maybe call a doctor or something.

Becoming discouraged

Thirdly, you may fear learning that you will need to put more work and thought into having a constructive effect on the world.  I realize how demotivating it is to be shown that one’s hard work may not help people as much as it could, or may even actively harm people.  You may even decide that you no longer identify with the values of a group or community to which you currently belong.  I’m sorry for the position that this puts you in, and in every situation I will try to give you a path forward in recompense.  If there’s more I can do, please let me know.  

I know from experience that finding your own path is intimidating.

Using understanding for evil

Fourthly, you may fear that people will use their new understanding of other people’s fears to exploit or manipulate them instead of working together with them to create a mutually beneficial outcome.  

I fear this outcome as well.  However, at this point I fear the results of popular ignorance and foolishness more than I fear the results of democratized knowledge and wisdom.  If society continues approaching conflicts with anger and hostility, things will get worse rather than better.  Only with understanding do we even have the option of building solutions that satisfy everyone.  

To prevent some people from using their understanding of others for evil, I’m counting on the rest of us to understand our own fears enough not to be fooled.  The more we all understand what’s at stake for everyone, the more we can look out for each other and incentivize honorable behavior.  

Destruction is usually easier than creation.  My tools are meant to make creation less difficult, but to create a better hole we still need to work together and put our awl into it.

Conclusion

Understanding the people you disagree with can be frightening, but I suspect your heart of hearts will tell you that it’s vitally important.  I’m here to make the process easier and more effective. If anything I say in future articles seems to disempower you, please let me know so I can change that. 

Just be careful about ascribing overly specific messages to your heart of hearts.

Background Mindset: Using Generalized Empathy to See Color and Culture

Introduction

In a disturbing turn of events, I’ve seen people who all want to do good and who all want to end racism calling each other nasty names because they can’t agree on how best to do that.  I’m here to help.  (You may prepare to call me nasty names now.)  

Ready your angriest emoji.

One group of people says they’re eliminating racial bigotry by ignoring people’s appearances.  They refer to this as “color-blindness” or “not seeing color” (referring to skin color).  Another group says that eliminating bigotry actually requires paying attention to people’s appearances (“seeing color”) and that “color-blindness” actually ends up perpetuating existing racial disparities and injustices.  This disagreement leads to much frustration and hurt feelings all around.  

If I can, I’d like to resolve this argument once and for all.  To do so, I will use the Foundational Toolbox for Life: the vocabulary of concepts I’ve developed for describing problems and solutions. 

Observation mindset

To start with, I believe there’s a misunderstanding about what people are supposed to do when they “see color.”  

Don’t worry if you can’t see the number 74 in this image; we’re not talking about you.  

When someone claims not to see color, they’re saying they treat people the same regardless of how they look, and only judge people based on their decisions and behavior.  That sounds good in theory, but what do those principles mean in practice?  

The way we treat and judge people we barely know is often based on assumptions that we have about them.  When we have narrow assumptions about what people in general are like and how they should act, that can be a problem in most situations, but it’s especially unhealthy when it comes to historically oppressed and marginalized groups.  

Groups with a history of marginalization  (whether their exclusion from mainstream spaces is deliberate or incidental) are frequently represented in popular culture in a caricatured or stereotyped fashion that omits the nuances of their cultures.  That means people outside those groups will often have assumptions about members of those groups, and interpret members’ actions through the lenses of those assumptions, which will frequently be inaccurate.  Inaccurate assumptions of what someone is thinking or doing lead to awkward interactions at best and hurtful ones at (hopefully) worst.  

Furthermore, we may be wrong about why someone thinks or acts a certain way.  We may not realize how a history of oppression has influenced a person’s or community’s outlook and decisions.  We will often need to peel back our assumptions with observation mindset (article coming soon).  If we don’t, we may end up acting on the fundamental attribution error or similar bias, attributing a decision or a mistake to a person’s character when it’s actually informed by their current situation or past experiences.  That is what people are afraid of when they say that being “color-blind” perpetuates racial bias.  Without knowledge of a person’s or group’s context, we may misjudge entirely reasonable behavior on their part.  

“You’re not allowed to touch the ball with your hands!  Wait, what do you mean you’re playing basketball?”

Background mindset

But wait…  Maybe you already recognize that your way of living isn’t the only valid one.  Perhaps you already give people credit by assuming that their mistakes are products of circumstance rather than of deep-seated personal flaws.  It may be that you “treat everyone the same” by treating everyone differently.  You might use observation mindset to avoid making assumptions and hasty judgments about them.  That’s definitely a good start.  If that’s what you mean by “not seeing color” then I think we can all agree you’re at least on the right track regardless of how you phrase it.  

Can we put away the angry emoji now?

There’s an important tool that you may be overlooking if you stop there, though.  

Background mindset is a tempered mindset on the communication axis.  It uses semantics in the service of empathy, applying labels and rules to simplify the process of making the impression that you want to make.  Even if you don’t really know a person, you can use what little you know about them to guess how to make your interaction smoother to start.  

I realize this idea may be unnerving for some people because it sounds like prejudice and bigotry.  However, it really isn’t either of those.  

Prejudice happens when we come to conclusions about someone based on our initial assumptions, without collecting all the relevant facts.  It’s especially harmful when we take actions that rely on those conclusions being true.  Bigotry happens when we refuse to update our conclusions when faced with contradicting evidence.  Background mindset requires neither of these things.  

What background mindset does is give us hints as to how to interact with someone respectfully, but these hints are not conclusions.  They’re only the opening moves to ease our way through initial interactions or unfamiliar situations.  

Background mindset encompasses etiquette and politeness, social cues and customs, signaling, slang and dialect, accents and shibboleths, coding and code-switching, fashion and dress codes, makeup and costumes, scenery and décor, and even camouflage.  

Background mindset is what helps you set the stage.  Once you understand how it works, you can calibrate it by learning what sorts of rules to follow in different contexts to generate the impressions that you want, and by getting feedback when you practice. 

By following rules of color and shading patterns, you can create the impression that you’re something else, or even blend in so well that you disappear.  For instance, closer inspection reveals this picture of frogs is actually mostly dirt in disguise. 

Examples

Here is an example of what background mindset can do using slang and dialect: 

How do you feel when someone asks you, “I pray thee, wouldst thou lend me thy guidance to the privy?” versus, “Oy, mate, where’s the loo?”  They’re the same question, but the two sentences follow two different sets of rules and may create very different impressions by doing so. 

On the other hand, many Americans might be equally bewildered by both questions. 

Clothing also lets you create different impressions on purpose.  How well you succeed depends in part on the expectations and mental associations possessed by the people you’re trying to create those impressions for. 

Fashion is one reason you can tell this is a pirate skeleton and not a Halloween skeleton or a Día de los Muertos skeleton: it follows the traditional rules that people associate with classical pirate garb.  It also greets you with, “Yarr, matey!”

Using what you learn about other cultures, you can even use background mindset to influence your own impressions of others. You might recognize when a person’s words or behavior mean something different for them than they normally would for you.  Noticing these variations makes it easier not to take it personally if someone comments on something that would normally be taboo in your culture, or if they express their anger or approval differently from how you expect.  (If you expect to interact with them on a regular basis, though, you may want to negotiate a mini-culture between the two of you so you can both make things easier on each other.)  

Okay, I’ll stop listening to your nose if you stop smelling my ear.  Deal?

Reflections

How might people from different cultural contexts express the same feelings or information in different ways?  What variations in cultural context do you notice even within your own country and/or ethnic group?  Do you feel differently about a person depending on how they express themselves?  Would you feel more comfortable with people if you became familiar with their preferred means of expressing themselves?  

Flipping the perspective, how might others feel differently about you based on how you express yourself?  What rules or guidelines might you follow to better put people at ease who have different backgrounds, personalities, or life experiences?  You may already have guidelines you follow in different contexts (or with different people) for acknowledging or avoiding certain topics, phrasing things in certain ways, or expressing emotions differently.  

The more you learn about different people, communities, and cultures, and how their experiences have shaped their development, the more effectively you can use background mindset to interact with new people so you can get to know them as actual people. 

And the closer to fruition my planetary Ring Around The Rosie plot becomes.  Ashes, ashes, you all fall down.  …Um, ignore that last bit. 

Recap and disclaimers

When people ask that we see color, what they really mean is they want us to start learning about people’s different experiences and what assumptions about people we should stop making.  Over time, we can learn more different approaches for showing respect and putting people at ease, and how to recognize by looking at someone which ones are safe and appropriate to try with them first and which ones we should probably avoid.  

Showing respect and putting people at ease does not mean we are required to do everything a person requests of us.  However, it will help us more effectively work with people to help them get what they really need.  

Likewise, showing respect and putting people at ease does not mean we are required to abandon an opinion just because someone else tells us they don’t approve of it.  However, it will help us decide when, how, and to whom to present our opinions such that people feel respected rather than threatened, and are much more likely to give our concerns due consideration and treat us with respect in turn.  

Finally, showing respect and putting people at ease is not a substitute for listening to people or caring about their wellbeing.  What it does is make the listening process more effective, which in turn helps us act on that care in ways that people will recognize and benefit from, with their permission.  

Sometimes the key to open someone’s heart is all in the framing.

Resources

While writing this article, I did not succeed in finding resources that outlined the general defining values or attitudes of specific cultures.  Even if I had found any, though, I don’t believe I would have felt confident in presenting them as authoritative or representative, since I would almost certainly lack sufficient firsthand experience with the culture in question to validate or vouch for such generalization from any single source.  

As such, if you want to learn about a specific culture you may need to do the research yourself.  I do recommend finding multiple sources from within that culture that don’t all agree with each other on everything, to get a nuanced and multifaceted perspective.  However, I hope that this article and the following resource(s) give you a good starting point for doing so.  

The resource(s) below for cultural sensitivity can help you peel back your assumptions by using observation mindset, in preparation for calibrating your background mindset for specific contexts.  In particular, the Bennett model of cultural sensitivity Dabbah describes provides a vocabulary for noticing and reflecting on how you regard other cultures and relate them to your own.  (You may recognize the “minimization” stage as the problem that people who condemn “color-blindness” are actually concerned about.)  

If you know of any resources that help people understand your own culture, feel free to share them in the comments and I can update this list.  

  • Dabbah, Mariela. “What is Cultural Sensitivity?” Red Shoe Movement. https://redshoemovement.com/what-is-cultural-sensitivity/.  Publication date not visible.  Retrieved May 3rd, 2021.  
    • Outlines the Bennett model of different stages of cultural sensitivity, with examples. The stages are as follows: 
      • Denial
      • Defense
      • Minimization
      • Acceptance
      • Integration

Conclusion

With all that said, I hope these concepts make it easier to engage in critical conversations about noticing and counteracting the biases and communication barriers that allow racism to survive.  With any luck you will see more articles here in the future to help with similar conversations.  Thank you for reading, and please let me know in the comments if this helps.  

Bring your emoji, if you must.

The Deconstruction Method… or: Arguing on the Internet 2: The Redux

Do not use when operating heavy machinery.

Many people try to get others to change their perspectives by being as harsh as possible until they decide to listen.  On the one hand, I can definitely see the appeal.  It’s easy: all I have to do is think about all the reasons I’m right and they’re wrong, and accompany each point with mockery of varying sophistication.  

That said, have you found that the approach of castigating or condemning adult humans tends to make them put more effort into learning and becoming better people?  In my interactions with many different humans, that approach has not gotten them to change the way I wanted them to.  I find that people learn not to seek improvement if the first step is punishment.  

The following method of applying deconstruction mindset has brought me considerably more success in persuading people to update their point of view.  It builds off of the three-step collaborative truth-seeking method.  (Each of the three steps below should incorporate all previous steps.  If you hit a sticking point on any step, I recommend going back and focusing more on the previous one.)  

1. Make Them Comfortable

Have a seat. Let’s chat.

Even ifno, especially if a person seems ignorant and intellectually lazy, this step is critical.  Human brains tend to work best when they’re comfortable, and with some people you’ll want them to start out with all the brain function they can get.  It’s not about whether they “deserve” to be comfortablethey’ll be plenty uncomfortable later in this process.  They’ll only engage with the process, though, if they feel understood and respected for who they already are.  (I’m frequently surprised by whom I can learn to understand and respect when I’m looking to change their mind.)  

To make a person comfortable, you can express appreciation for one or more of their values relevant to the situation at hand.  You don’t have to agree with what they do to fulfill the value; you just have to recognize that in principle, it’s a valid value to have and one that you may share in some capacity.  

Additionally, although many people paraphrase their ideological rivals to twist their words, paraphrasing with kindness and suspended judgment is actually more effectively used to make people feel comfortable by establishing mutual understanding of where you’re both starting from.  

2. Make Them Think

Brains have a lot in them.  It takes time and comfort to sort through it all with someone. 

Once they’re comfortable, you can start asking questions.  Asking them to elaborate on reasoning you don’t follow will also make them comfortable.  People like explaining themselves, and they’ll end up reflecting more deeply on what they believe when they’re explaining it to a sympathetic yet skeptical ear.  

I also recommend you ask questions about their experiences and share your own experiences to see how they compare.  Keeping things centered on personal experiences and feelings (rather than on generalizations, predictions, or judgments) will allow them to see why you think and feel differently than they do.  The experiences you share will make them reconsider their perspective.  That’s where the discomfort begins, but at that point they will often respect you enough to continue. 

3. Make Them Choose

You may discover more possibilities for good options than either of you realized. 

Now that they have a clearer picture of the situation, you can emphasize the consequences of their behavior, and how it affects other people.  You can make it clear what you personally will and will not tolerate and how you will respond to their choice.  If you’re feeling generous, you can explain why.  Then you can make them take responsibility for those consequences you made them think about, which gives them a reason to think harder about their choice.  

That’s the finishing move of discomfort.  With deconstruction, we stole their ignorance, and therefore their bliss.  If they choose not to change, they can no longer overlook how that affects people.  We can’t force people to make one choice or another, but they’re more likely to make a constructive decision if we use this deconstruction method than if we try to simply rebuke and command them, even if their decision isn’t exactly what we had in mind.  

Conclusion

So it turns out that the brain is unlocked using a skeleton key.  Go figure. 
  1. Make them comfortable
  2. Make them think
  3. Make them choose

I choose to use this deconstruction method because no matter how frustrated I am, expressing my feelings without filters only makes me feel slightly better, and doesn’t fix the source of my frustration.  It takes more effort and practice to use this method, but I find it’s worth it to help someone understand how to make better choices.  For me, it means the world has that much more wisdom in it, which is my top priority.  

(I also find that steps 1 and 2 become much easier and more effective through the use of the toolbox of concepts I’ve developed for identifying and describing people’s values and fears, including our own.)  

What do you think?  Would you consider the deconstruction method worth learning to use, or at least worth bringing in someone else to use it when you get frustrated?  

(And did you notice that this whole article is a demonstration of the method?)  

Whoa.

A Dialogue on Corporate Folly

“Thank you for coming; we’ve brought you in to consult on some issues we’ve been having with our new plane design.”

“Great Scott, I’ve never seen such a crash! It tore the wings clean off!”

“Oh, the wings weren’t there in the first place.”

“…What?”

“Yeah, we had to meet our launch deadline, so we were going to add those during the flight.”

“… …How did it get into the air in the first place?”

“Catapult!”

“… … …How was it going to stay in the air?”

“We have—we had our highly-skilled technical experts working overtime in there, flapping their arms really fast. They know enough to build the flight infrastructure, so we figured they’d just keep the plane in the air manually in the meantime.”

“… … … …It doesn’t appear to have worked.”

“No, it didn’t. But when you’re working on a project as ambitious as this one, you have to expect a few unexpected setbacks. And the more mistakes we make, the faster we learn!”

“… … … … …So based on this mistake, I assume the next model will be launched with wings?”

“Oh, that might work! I was thinking it might just need to be launched at a higher altitude, to give them more time to put the wings on.”

“… … … … … …I see the seats and tray tables you took the time to install are still in the upright and locked position.”

“Yes, indeed! We know how to make ’em sturdy—after all, we’ve been in the furniture business for decades!”

Editor’s note: Some of this story has been fictionalized to make it more interesting. In real life the company would never have thought of bringing in a consultant.

The Foundational Toolbox for Life: Abridged Dictionary

Image by PDPics from Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/dictionary-words-grammar-abc-390055/

Introduction

I apologize for the long delay since my last article. Rest assured I have not been idle in applying and further refining the concepts I’ve been writing about, which I’ve started calling the Foundational Toolbox for Life. The purpose of the Toolbox is to give people a place to start when it comes to solving any problem; to help them frame situations constructively. Any system people build, people can break, and we’ll inevitably break any system we try to build unless we develop habits of maintaining and updating it. We’ll need to work together to do that, and we’ll need to have a shared idea of what we’re doing and how. That’s far from the only purpose these tools can be put to, but it’s probably the most important one. 

These past months, I have been busy with projects to help the world take over itself using the Toolbox, but there are still three more foundational articles planned: observation mindset, the composite mindsets, and the motivations. Those articles might not be done for a while, though, so this piece will give you a brief preview of them. 

This document is an abridged dictionary and guide to the concepts I use in the Toolbox. It’s ordered by category rather than alphabetized, and has sections for order and chaos (some extra basic concepts that help define the rest), motivations (what people want), liabilities (the problems that stand in the way of what we want), mindsets (the tools we use to overcome those problems), and attributes of those mindsets that we can grow stronger in. Future articles will make more extensive use of these concepts to frame problems and solutions on societal issues. 

Some of these keywords and vocabulary words are subject to change, and some will probably need to be expanded. It can be tricky to locate a word within the English language that has enough of all the connotations that match the different aspects of a concept, and not too many connotations that don’t. If I find a word that works much better than a word I’ve currently got, I may upgrade. The definitions are subject to revision as well as I develop a better understanding of the concepts themselves. 

Without further ado, welcome to the whirlwind tour of the tools in the Foundational Toolbox for Life.

Order and chaos

These are some basic existential concepts on which the tools in the toolbox are based. They help define what we want, what obstacles we face in getting it, the skills we use to overcome those obstacles, and the comparable attributes of all of those concepts. 

Situation: A collection of factors (or details, or variables, if you prefer) that affect each other, such that if you want to change one of them deliberately you must do some combination of the following: 

  1. know the states of some of the other factors
  2. change some of the other factors as a prerequisite 
  3. be aware that some of the other factors will change as a result

In real life, situations are not always completely separate from each other, but they are often separate enough that you don’t need to know about every possible context in order to deal with one of them. 

Context: A collection of situations that distantly influence each other, or a type of recurring situation that works much the same way each time. 

The map and the territory: The territory is reality: situations and contexts. Reality has many different situations and contexts that require different skills to deal with, and each situation could be considered a different territory. 

The map is the mental model you have of a territory. Your map makes predictions about the territory and about how you can change it the way you want. The map does not need to know how the territory works; it only has to make predictions based on what it observes. A map can predict the correct way to throw a ball to hit a target. 

Order: Describes how good a representation of the territory your map is; how comprehensively it depicts the territory and how accurate its predictions are. Order can also describe how easily a territory can be represented by a map. A territory with neat and consistent patterns is easy to predict with a simple map. Order is about certainties and limits, what must be and what cannot be. In short, order is what is “known”. 

Chaos: Describes omissions and errors in your map of a territory. It can also describe how difficult it is to represent a territory with a map. A messy and asymmetrical territory requires a more complicated map to represent it, and more work to make that map. Chaos is about possibilities and exceptions, what may or may not be. In short, chaos is what is “unknown”. 

Motivations

Motivations: the general tendencies that each of us has in what goals we pursue and why. When we accomplish a goal, motivations describe what sort of goals we’re likely to pursue next. They describe what brings us joy and satisfaction. When we don’t act on our motivations, it’s usually because we’re either helping other people fulfill theirs, or we’re working towards the long-term objective of becoming better able to fulfill motivations. 

Motivations describe the core reasons why anyone does anything. They describe our value judgments of one world as more pleasant and desirable than another. They represent ways in which we wish the world would change, or stay the same. The can be combined with each other, and frequently are. If we’re not doing something for the sake of our own motivations, we’re either doing something for the sake of the motivations of other people, or for the virtues that counteract liabilities and make it easier for people to fulfill their motivations. (More about liabilities and virtues in the next category).

Most people are responsive to at least two or three of these motivations at some point or other. It’s usually less healthy to be responsive to fewer motivations, because then there are fewer options for finding joy and satisfaction. Your profile of motivational responsiveness is probably at least a little based on nature, but can certainly change over time for a number of reasons. Even with a diversified portfolio of motivations, there are still dangers, but we’ll cover those in the next section. 

Like the other tools, motivations are defined by order and chaos, but also by experience and influence.

Experience: Input from the world into your mind; the effect that the world causes in you. 

Influence: Output from your mind into the world; the effect that you cause in the world. 

Specific Motivations

Celebration: The desire to obtain more of some sort of experience; to fill one’s future scope of experience with more of something. Responding to the motivation of celebration is called “feasting.” 

Example: Celebration might seek to eat a large number of apples, or to eat apples more frequently. 

Acquisition: The desire to obtain more of some sort of influence; to fill one’s future scope of influence with more of something. Responding to the motivation of acquisition is called “taking.” 

Example: Acquisition might seek to own as many apple orchards as possible. 

Idealization: The desire to impose more order on one’s experience, to make it more closely match a specific vision. Responding to the motivation of idealization is called “chasing.” 

Example: Idealization might seek out apples that conform ever more perfectly to one’s own standards for appearance, texture, and taste. 

Control: The desire to impose more order on one’s influence, to have absolute power over something without interference. Responding to the motivation of control is called “gripping.” 

Example: Control might seek to grow apples without any outside factors interfering with their development. 

Curiosity: The desire to impose more chaos on one’s experience, to experience novel, previously unknown sensations or information. Responding to the motivation of curiosity is called “roaming.” 

Example: Curiosity might seek new kinds of apples with new appearances and flavors, or new ways to prepare them. 

Boldness: The desire to impose more chaos on one’s influence; to transgress rules or defy assumed limits and cause unpredicted or unpredictable effects. Responding to the motivation of boldness is called “breaking.” 

Example: Boldness might seek to defy people’s expectations, including their own, by finding new uses for apples or breeding new strains. 

Insulation: The desire to avoid some sort of experience; to remove something from one’s future scope of experience. Responding to the motivation of insulation is called “hiding.”  

Example: Insulation might avoid eating some strains of apples because it finds the flavor unpleasant. 

Relaxation: The desire to avoid exerting some sort of influence; to remove something from one’s future scope of influence. Responding to the motivation of relaxation is called “leaving.” 

Example: Relaxation might avoid having to maintain an apple orchard or prepare apple products because it finds learning or exercising the relevant skills to be draining. 

Liabilities

Liabilities describe obstacles in the way of fulfilling motivations. These obstacles are based on fundamental aspects of conscious existence as we know it, and which only become obstacles when they stand in the way of what we want. As such, liabilities can feed each other or interfere with each other. This category of concepts also covers some possible approaches to dealing with those obstacles. 

Material liabilities

Scarcity: Material order; stability that obstructs; known limitations on what one can physically do. Scarcity can be modeled as a collection of known barriers, each requiring a toll to cross. Your resources, knowledge, effort, and skills will limit which combinations of barriers you can cross, and some barriers may not be crossable at all. 

In short, scarcity is when you run out of stuff. 

Examples: 

  • Insufficient fuel to reach the next checkpoint
  • Insufficient strength to move the obstruction
  • Insufficient funds to purchase something you need
  • Insufficient charge to power your device
  • Insufficient time to make the deadline
  • Insufficient information to calculate the correct answer

Disaster: Material chaos; discovery that disrupts; unknown or unpredictable events that disrupt one’s physical plans. Disaster can be modeled as a collection of barriers with tolls, the same as scarcity, except that you are ignorant of the barriers’ exact locations, the amounts and natures of the tolls they charge, and in some cases the very existence of a barrier at all. You will occasionally crash into these barriers and your plans will suffer setbacks. (Once you have run into a barrier and now know it is there, it can be considered scarcity rather than disaster. However, the event of running into the barrier without warning is still a disaster and usually causes more problems than if you had known to be ready for it.) 

In short, disaster represents what you don’t know will go wrong. Disaster is when you run into stuff. 

Examples: 

  • Natural disasters
  • Diseases and blights
  • Equipment and software breaking down
  • Accidents and injuries
  • Human error and lapses in judgment

Motivational liabilities

Stagnation: Motivational order; identity that binds; known limitations on what goals one is willing to pursue. Stagnation can be modeled as ruts in the mind, that wear deeper and steeper with each repetition of a thought or decision until they become automatic assumptions, hardly noticed and never questioned. 

In short, stagnation is goals destroying themselves. 

Examples: 

  • Addictions
  • Inability to delay gratification
  • Akrasia (lack of willpower)
  • Complacency
  • Willful ignorance
  • Herd mentality
  • Fanaticism

Conflict: Motivational chaos; choice that divides; unknown or unpredictable clashes between multiple desires in a person or group of people. We cannot know how well the agents of each goal can champion their cause, or what they’re prepared to give up in order to do so, until we see the outcome of their struggle. Conflict can be modeled as wagons or carts rolling in the dark, each carrying a particular goal, and when they collide it’s unknown which ones, if any, will be able to regain their original course. 

In short, conflict is goals destroying each other. 

Examples: 

  • War
  • Crime
  • Ideological polarization
  • Feuds
  • Trolling
  • Deception
  • Arguments

Tradeoffs

Tradeoffs describe two different ways each liability can manifest. People choose one version of liability over another because they think they’re better able to survive or afford it. 

Underregulated liabilities

Underregulation is a tradeoff approach to a liability which completely disregards the threat the liability poses, to skip paying the cost of worrying or doing anything about it. 

Wastefulness: underregulated scarcity. Spending resources and effort on things that do not provide lasting benefit, and thereby not having them when it really matters. 

Negligence: underregulated disaster. Failing to anticipate that things may go wrong and set things up to prevent or mitigate problems. 

Decadence: underregulated stagnation. Developing bad habits and becoming addicted to the pursuit of motivations at the expense of others, the big picture, or long-term benefits. 

Turmoil: underregulated conflict. Violence, coercion, and rule by superior force which impede and discourage constructive activities. 

Overregulated liabilities

Overregulation is a tradeoff approach to a liability which pays a high cost with the intent of averting the liability as much as possible, but which risks incurring the liability in a different form. 

Austerity: overregulated scarcity. Hoarding resources and spending them only when absolutely necessary in the short term, thereby sacrificing other potential benefits and opportunities they could afford. 

Susceptibility: overregulated disaster. Avoiding all risks and the unknown, resulting in being completely unequipped to deal with disaster when it does happen, as well as being unable to gain new knowledge. 

Dogma: overregulated stagnation. The unwillingness to question certain ideas or consider certain possibilities, which sets unnecessary limitations on people’s ability to achieve their goals and which may make it impossible to to deal effectively with change. 

Corruption: overregulated conflict. Deception, manipulation, and fraud which use rules as weapons against people to cheat them out of what they try to accomplish, and eventually cause trust to break down. 

Political compass

These terms describe the tradeoffs that people tend to make in a particular context, usually the context of politics or government policy. 

Progressive: rejecting the status quo; fears austerity and susceptibility more than wastefulness and negligence and so tends to err on the side of underregulating scarcity and disaster. 

Conservative: accepting the status quo; fears wastefulness and negligence more than austerity and susceptibility and so tends to err on the side of overregulating scarcity and disaster. 

Libertarian: favoring more individual freedom; fears dogma and corruption more than decadence and turmoil and so tends to err on the side of underregulating stagnation and conflict. 

Authoritarian: favors more collective structure; fears decadence and turmoil more than dogma and corruption and so tends to err on the side of overregulating stagnation and conflict. 

These ideological terms are subjective in the sense that two people can advocate the same policy for different reasons, or they can advocate different policies due to favoring the same type of tradeoff, but with respect to two different reference frames. 

For example, two different people might favor the status quo, but they might disagree about what counts as the status quo. They might reject the status quo but disagree about what direction to move in. They might favor spending more of one resource to conserve another, but disagree about which resource is more important to conserve. They might favor instituting a hierarchy of authority but disagree about who that authority should be and what rules they should create. 

Virtues

Virtues are constructive ways of dealing with liabilities that use a higher level of problem-solving, beyond the short-term, zero-sum thinking of the tradeoffs. They are approaches to building and maintaining strong skills, systems, and communities that can deal with liabilities in the long term more effectively than any attempt to balance tradeoffs against each other. Although they take more thought and effort compared to tradeoffs, they yield a much greater reward in exchange. 

Investment: deals with scarcity. Spends effort and resources in ways that yield an increase in valuable resources in the future, sustaining prosperity in the long-term. 

Preparation: deals with disaster. Investigates new situations with caution to learn about what is possible; identifies parts of a system and creates and maintains systems to prevent, mitigate, and repair damage to those parts. 

Transcendence: deals with stagnation. Develops mental discipline to prevent addiction, and considers the nuances of ideas without having to accept them. 

Ethics: deals with conflict. Makes some sacrifices to adhere to sustainable principles and contribute to the wellbeing and success of others, considering their satisfaction important for one’s own. 

Mindsets

If motivations describe the sorts of goals we pursue and liabilities describe the problems that stand in the way of those goals, then mindsets are the tools we use to achieve those goals by overcoming liabilities. Before we get into how mindsets work, we’ll need to establish some more basic concepts. 

Feedback loop: a process that does the following as a repetitive cycle: 

  1. receives experience from its environment
  2. exerts influence on the environment in response to that stimulus
  3. receives a feedback experience based on the influence it exerts
  4. updates itself and its influence in response to that experience
  5. Repeat this process indefinitely, until some condition is met or the situation changes so that the loop cannot continue

Every mindset, without exception, is a feedback loop that uses the processes of guessing and checking (below).  

Paradigm: A paradigm describes the type of map you use, defined by the aspects of the territory it includes. If you use a paradigm that doesn’t include important aspects of the territory, then your map won’t work no matter how much detail you add and how much you practice using it. For example, a topographic map won’t tell you when you’re about to cross from one country to another, and a political map will be of limited help in locating mountains and valleys. 

Calibration: The process of increasing the accuracy of your map through practice with applying a skill, and through learning from the feedback the territory gives you based on what you try. Maps may be calibrated for different territories, even if they are the same type of map. For example, two topographic maps might show completely different regions. More practically, a person may speak multiple languages, but that doesn’t mean they automatically know all of them. They still need to spend time learning and practicing each one. For the same reason, a person might have strong attributes in a mindset but will not automatically have every skill that uses that mindset. 

Guessing: the process of free association; exploring possibilities and chaos. Iterating through potential hypotheses. 

Checking: the process of accepting or rejecting guesses; exploring consistency and order. Matching hypotheses to the territory and redistributing their probability mass (and that of the hypotheses around them). 

Subliminal mode: Describes processes that leave no record of how they produced the results that they did. 

Distinct mode: describes processes that are monitored and recorded in the mind, and which can be directly accessed and altered. 

Mindset: a feedback loop that combines guessing and checking processes in order to make a more accurate map of some aspect of the territory. This map allows you to make predictions about that aspect and find ways to influence it to do and to become what you want it to. 

Each mindset maps a different aspect of the territory, which is determined by which modes the guessing and checking processes run in and how they are combined. Mindsets can be combined and dovetailed to make other mindsets. 

Mindsets are not hard categories, but a vocabulary to describe how people think, and how they can learn to think, and what kind of thinking different problems require. Just as primary colors can be combined to make more colors, and those colors can be used in different configurations to make pictures, there are basic building-block mindsets that can be combined to form more mindsets, which can be used to describe every possible skill. 

Basic mindsets

These nine mindsets are the most important ones to learn and remember, because all other mindsets are derived from them. 

Primary mindsets

These are the four core mindsets from which all other mindsets are derived, with the exception of the zeroth mindset. 

Operation: shapes effort, deals with trajectory; subliminal guessing paired with subliminal checking. Also known as intuition, operation mindset develops very detailed maps regarding territories that involve real-time interactions with rapid feedback. These maps are completely subliminal, unable to be directly accessed or edited. Updating and maintaining them requires practice. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Operation mindset learns how to use it gracefully and even juggle with it. 

Synthesis: generates ideas, deals with possibility; distinct guessing paired with subliminal checking. Also known as imagination, synthesis mindset explores possibilities and hypotheticals by freely associating thoughts and memories, and blending the characteristics of different ideas. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Synthesis mindset considers all kinds of things it can do, regardless of whether they are practical or efficient (such as building a floating city). 

Analysis: evaluates ideas, deals with consistency; subliminal guessing paired with distinct checking. Analysis mindset explores the logical implications of different ideas and hypotheses, identifying flaws and some simple updates to a hypothesis that might make it more closely match reality. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Analysis mindset figures out how it works. 

Organization: allocates efforts, deals with priority. Distinct guessing paired with distinct checking. Organization mindset reviews the goals and constraints present in a situation and compares the rewards of different possible goals, and the different paths to reach them, in order to attain as much satisfaction as possible compared to the resource costs paid to achieve them. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Given several possible uses you could put it to, organization mindset figures out which one will save the most time, effort, or money (such as running an inexpensive airline or shipping service). 

Secondary mindsets

These mindsets combine two non-opposing primary mindsets, but they’re distinct enough in character that they are included with the basic mindsets. It is possible to use two non-opposing primary mindsets together without using the associated secondary mindset, such as using synthesis and operation to visualize and draw a picture without using empathy mindset

Tactics: redirects paths; deals with opportunity; combines synthesis and organization. Tactics mindset comes up with clever plans to open up options by applying the resources at hand in unexpected ways. It considers various possible uses of the combined contents of your inventory in the current environment and how relevant they are to the situation you’re dealing with. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Tactics mindset considers how you can use it to solve a problem you’re facing (such as using it to create a distraction by lifting and dropping a large object some distance away). 

Strategy: fortifies paths; deals with contingency; combines analysis and organization. Strategy mindset foresees unwanted outcomes and arranges resources to close them down in advance. It reviews the assumptions on which a plan is based and decides on reasonable measures that will keep the plan on track if those assumptions turn out to be wrong. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Strategy considers the potential hazards of using it and suggests measures to keep things safe (such as not leaving the device running unattended, or not levitating objects above places you wouldn’t want them to fall). 

Semantics: simplifies interactions; deals with generality; combines analysis and operation. Semantics mindset applies labels to situations to identify the most significant details, and applies rules to those labels to easily infer information or make decisions, as long as the assumptions underlying the labels and rules remain valid. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Semantics mindset can record its properties and the steps to use it, and describe them to someone else.

Empathy: individualizes interactions; deals with sensitivity; combines synthesis and operation. Empathy mindset handles situations with hidden factors that change in response to what you do, such as people, animals, plans, temperamental machinery, or even food ingredients. Different entities may respond differently to the same stimulus, so empathy helps you adjust your behavior or the environment to evoke different impressions and more smoothly influence how an entity responds. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Empathy mindset considers how it might make different people feel and what you can say or do to influence how they feel about it. 

Zeroth mindset

Observation: absorbs moments; deals with actuality. Also known as mindfulness, observation mindset peels back the filters that other mindsets place over the territory and the predictions they make about it, and looks at the raw sensations that might otherwise be filtered out. 

Most mindsets approach a new context with a learning attitude, updating their respective maps with new information. However, they will usually transition gradually to an application attitude, assuming the underlying principles of the map are correct and filtering out all but the most overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

There are advantages and disadvantages to filtering out contradictory evidence, so there are times where it’s possible to use too much observation or not enough. 

Here are a few keywords that pertain to observation mindset, in order of least to most observation. 

Depleted mindsets fail to use observation when they need to, and so they fail to notice when they should learn and update their maps. 

For example, depleted strategy mindset might pack for a trip based on outdated assumptions about what you can and can’t do when you get there. 

Distilled mindsets are confident in their application attitude when they need to be, in situations that already well match their maps. 

For example, a seasoned traveler might use distilled strategy mindset to pack useful items for a trip to a place they’ve never been before, based on knowledge of key features of their destination that are similar to those of places they’ve been before. 

Attuned mindsets use observation in situations that are mostly familiar but with some unfamiliar aspects, to follow the map confidently while monitoring key details that indicate whether the map is still valid. 

For example, attuned strategy mindset might pack the basics for your trip based on acquired expertise, while continuing to learn new things about the destination that might inform what else you bring along. 

Enriched mindsets use the observation they need to notice when the situation becomes quite unfamiliar, to identify which parts of their maps need to be updated, and to get clues about what those updates might need to be and whether or not they’re working. 

For example, enriched strategy mindset might decide to gather more information on the weather, the news, and the schedules of various tourist attractions before considering what activities might be feasible on a vacation. 

Saturated mindsets use more observation than they need to and are stuck in the learning mode, unable to confidently apply their maps to move forward without checking each step. 

For example, saturated strategy mindset might try to pack too much for a trip by refusing to make any assumptions about what items may be unnecessary. 

Peripheral mindsets

Peripheral mindsets are less fundamental and more specialized than the preceding ones. With the possible exception of the tempered mindsets, you can use them by applying either of their two constituent mindsets in service of the other. For example, precision mindset can be used with semantics aiding operation to increase the precision of physical movements, or with operation aiding semantics to increase the precision of language and symbol manipulation. 

Interstitial mindsets

These mindsets combine a primary mindset and a related secondary mindset. 

Precision: combination of semantics and more operation. 

Rapport: combination of empathy and more operation. 

Inspiration: combination of empathy and more synthesis. 

Radicality: combination of tactics and more synthesis. 

Modification: combination of tactics and more organization. 

Standardization: combination of strategy and more organization. 

Security: combination of strategy and more analysis. 

Diagnosis: combination of semantics and more analysis. 

Tertiary mindsets

These mindsets combine a primary mindset and an unrelated secondary mindset. 

Flexibility: combination of tactics and operation. 

Assembly: combination of strategy and operation. 

Institution: combination of strategy and synthesis. 

Narrative: combination of semantics and synthesis. 

Notification: combination of semantics and organization. 

Politics: combination of empathy and organization. 

Deconstruction: combination of empathy and analysis. 

Hacking: combination of tactics and analysis. 

Quaternary mindsets

These mindsets combine two non-opposing secondary mindsets. 

Interpretation: combination of tactics and semantics. 

Clarification: combination of strategy and semantics. 

Reputation: combination of strategy and empathy. 

Surprise: combination of tactics and empathy. 

Tempered mindsets

These mindsets combine two opposing primary or secondary mindsets unevenly. 

Thoroughness: operation bolstered by organization. 

Orchestration: organization bolstered by operation. 

Design: synthesis bolstered by analysis. 

Science: analysis bolstered by synthesis. 

Overhaul: tactics bolstered by strategy. 

Salvage: strategy bolstered by tactics. 

Translation: semantics bolstered by empathy. 

Background: empathy bolstered by semantics. 

Advanced mindsets

These mindsets are formed by balancing opposing mindsets and being able to use them together effectively. 

Axial mindsets

These mindsets combine two opposing primary or secondary mindsets evenly, but may also encompass the tempered mindsets. 

Action: deals with effort; combination of operation and organization (and thoroughness and orchestration). 

Perception: deals with ideas; combination of synthesis and analysis (and design and science). 

Facilitation: deals with paths; combination of tactics and strategy (and overhaul and salvage). 

Communication: deals with interactions; combination of semantics and empathy (and translation and background). 

Composite mindsets

Composite mindsets combine two axial mindsets and include all of the related primary, secondary, tempered, interstitial, tertiary, and/or quaternary mindsets associated with that combination of primary and secondary mindsets. 

Using a composite mindset doesn’t mean you use all of its sub-mindsets all the time, just like using your hands doesn’t mean flexing every finger all the time. It just means all the fingers are there to play a role when you need them. The same goes for the composite mindsets. For instance, applying competition mindset in a particular situation may only call for the standardization aspect of competition. 

A composite mindset may also tell you the best way to solve a problem involves a mindset that that composite mindset doesn’t include, and that’s normal. For instance, cunning mindset might decide that the most effective way to accomplish a goal requires research using notification mindset. 

Augmented mindsets: possessing an “augmented” mindset refers to being able to use all the mindsets related to a primary or secondary mindset; in other words, being able to boost the effectiveness of a basic mindset with any or all of the other basic mindsets.

For example, a person who can use augmented empathy mindset can use empathy, rapport, inspiration, deconstruction, politics, reputation, surprise, translation, and background, to the extent the situation calls for them. 

Responsibility: deals with development. Combination of action and perception. (And thoroughness, orchestration, design, science, operation, organization, synthesis, and analysis.) 

Competition: deals with rates. Combination of action and facilitation. (And thoroughness, orchestration, overhaul, salvage, flexibility, assembly, standardization, modification, operation, organization, tactics, and strategy.) 

Connection: deals with relationships. Combination of action and communication. (And thoroughness, orchestration, translation, background, notification, politics, precision, rapport, operation, organization, semantics, and empathy.) 

Cunning: deals with consequences. Combination of perception and facilitation. (And design, science, overhaul, salvage, radicality, institution, hacking, security, synthesis, analysis, tactics, and strategy.) 

Education: deals with paradigms. Combination of perception and communication. (And design, science, translation, background, narrative, deconstruction, inspiration, diagnosis, synthesis, analysis, semantics, and empathy.) 

Presentation: deals with ambiguity. Combination of facilitation and communication. (And overhaul, salvage, translation, background, interpretation, clarification, reputation, surprise, tactics, strategy, semantics, and empathy.) 

Apex mindset

Capability mindset: describes having all above mindsets at your command. This does not mean having all skills or knowledge; you will still need to learn any skill you want to use, calibrate it through practice to the particular territory you want to use it in, and actually apply it when you want to change something. Possessing capability mindset just means you don’t have any mental blind spots. You can maintain awareness of and deliberately influence any aspect of the territory, and can learn or at least achieve a basic understanding of any type of skill involving any combination of mindsets. 

With capability mindset, you can go about your day with all the basic mindsets active in the back of your mind, and they can alert you when they notice something important. There don’t have to be hard boundaries between the mindsets; you can apply all of them to a situation in any combination or in any order based on their relevance to the situation. 

Attributes

Attributes describe the different aspects of mindsets, motivations, and liabilities. These aspects can be compared and, for mindsets and motivations, exercised and strengthened. 

Attributes can refer to people generally, or with respect to specific contexts. For example, a person may have high resilience when dealing with deadlines but low resilience when dealing with social situations, or vice versa. Attributes can also be somewhat subjective. For instance, different people experience different levels of stress in the same situation. A person who enjoys crowds doesn’t need as much resilience to mingle at parties as someone who prefers smaller groups. The point of attributes isn’t to quantify, but to figure out what aspects of themselves people may want to improve on and to help them gauge their progress. 

Primary attributes

Initiative: describes the conditions you require in order to start applying a mindset or pursuing a motivation. How great does the reward have to be? How close does it have to be to you? How certain? How much does it cost you to get started? 

Initiative attribute can also be used to describe liabilities: How likely is it that this liability occurs in this particular context? 

Applying initiative attribute is called “driving.” 

Examples: 

Operation mindset: You can casually start juggling whenever you feel like it. 

Scarcity: It’s very easy to run out of fuel for your machine because it’s perishable and so you can’t store very much of it at a time. 

Celebration: When your local grocery store is out of apples, you decide to drive a half hour out of your way to get them without hesitation, because you want more apples. 

Resilience: describes the conditions you require in order to continue applying a mindset or pursuing a motivation. How well can you maintain the quality of your performance under stress or uncertain conditions? How much hardship does it take for you to abandon active pursuit of a particular goal or general motivation? 

Resilience attribute can also be used to describe liabilities: How difficult is it to overcome this liability once it does occur? 

Applying resilience attribute is called “striving.” 

Examples: 

Operation mindset: You can keep juggling even when something startles you. 

Scarcity: It takes a lot of effort to get the special fuel you need for your machine, so keeping your supply replenished is an ongoing battle. 

Celebration: It turns out the main road to the other store is closed, but you drive around until you find a detour, because you decided to get those apples and you’re serious about it. 

Mobility: 

When describing mindset, mobility attribute refers to how quickly you can accomplish a meaningful effect after you start, and how well you can change directions or wrap up what you’re doing. 

When describing a motivation, mobility attribute refers to how wide a variety of goals you could pursue to fulfill a particular motivation. How soon after changing directions would you start feeling like you were making satisfying progress? 

Mobility attribute can also be used to describe liabilities: How wide a variety of forms does this liability manifest in, in this context? 

Applying mobility attribute is called “shifting.” 

Examples: 

Operation mindset: You can quickly learn to juggle small numbers of different kinds of objects. 

Scarcity: Maintaining your machine is tricky because there are so many different resources it needs, and it seems like you’re always low on something. 

Celebration: You don’t need to get apples from the other store, because you enjoy other fruit just as much. 

Intensity: 

When describing a mindset, intensity attribute refers to how far you can continue to push the effects you create. How large of an impact can you make when you try to change a situation? 

When describing a motivation, intensity attribute refers to how much of a change you desire to the status quo. If given the chance, how extreme a goal would you pursue? 

Intensity attribute can also be used to describe liabilities: How much of an impact does this liability have? 

Applying intensity attribute is called “delving.” 

Examples: 

Operation mindset: After much practice, you can juggle a very large number of unusual objects. 

Scarcity: You only have enough fuel to run your machine for thirty seconds, which severely limits the number of widgets it can produce. 

Celebration: You may or may not drive out of your way, and you may or may not substitute other fruit for apples, but when you have the chance, you buy bushels of apples and eat one every hour. 

Secondary attributes

Enterprise: combination of initiative and mobility. Applying enterprise attribute is called “leaping.” 

Industry: combination of initiative and intensity. Applying industry attribute is called “honing.” 

Adaptability: combination of resilience and mobility. Applying adaptability attribute is called “sliding.” 

Determination: combination of resilience and intensity. Applying determination attribute is called “buckling.” 

Axial attributes

Independence: combination of initiative and resilience. With independence you can start and continue what you choose without regard for the environmental conditions. Applying independence attribute is called “striding.” 

Finesse: combination of mobility and intensity. With finesse you can apply as much effort as you need in a particular place. Applying finesse attribute is called “dancing.” 

The rudiment and the apex

Competence: the zeroth attribute. Competence means you have a basic grasp of a skill and how to apply it in a particular situation, and can use it on command under ideal conditions. Applying competence attribute is called “using.” (As in, “an operation mindset user.”) 

Mastery: the culmination of all previous attributes. Mastery means you have developed high levels in all attributes and thus can apply a skill however you need to. Applying mastery attribute is called “wielding.” 

Conclusion

Now don’t tell me how brilliant and beautiful this toolbox of concepts is. I don’t need other people to read it and tell me that; that’s not why I wrote it down. Tell me what you’re going to do with it: this knowledge, this power, this responsibility. 

What problems and liabilities will you confront, now that you have a place to start understanding them? 

What roles could you learn to take on for humanity, to contribute more to the universe than you consume? 

How will you build a better life, a stronger community, a kinder world? 

That’s what I want to hear about. That’s how I’ll know it was worth the effort.