Tag Archives: Critical Thinking

MODELS AND ASSUMPTIONS

Wikipedia states that “a mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world.” More accurately it is an representation of someone’s understanding of a certain piece of the world.

This representation is composed of symbols arranged in a relationship to each other. Let’s take for example a locked door. A simple model of this real world situation might include three symbols: the door, the lock, and the key. If one does not have the key then the lock keeps the door closed and it is impassable. If one does have the key then the door is no longer an obstacle and becomes passable. The way these symbols relate to each other forms the model of the locked door. And to a degree this model matches reality and thus is true to that same degree.

However reality is more nuanced than our simple model suggests. One could more perceptively understand the lock to be a physical system. And should one understand that physical system – that is to have an accurate mental model of how the lock operates – one has the ability to manipulate it in such a way as to open the door even in the absence of the key. Or perhaps one might realize that the door is composed of particle board and will cave in to a forcibly applied shoulder.

In our first, simpler model we take the lock and door to be fundamental entities. However on closer examination find that the lock is actually a physical system and the door is impassable only as long as it remains unbroken. Putting the sturdiness of the door aside, our expanded view of the situation has more than three symbols. The door and key are still only two, but the lock has revealed itself to be a constellation of symbols: pins, springs, cams, and more. We could this much further, describing the pins in terms of the metals they are composed of, and those in terms of their chemical and physical structure, and those in terms of their atomic compositions and bonds, and those in terms of quantum mechanics, and on and on. Looking at the world like this in everyday life is of course just silly and no one does so. Likewise I don’t need to know how an internal combustion engine works to know how to drive a car. Knowing that when I turn my key the engine starts and then powers my vehicle is an abstraction, but is all that matters to me functionally.

Like me and my car, none of us understands how everything in the world truly works. We instead understand the world through our symbolic representation of it. We even model each other. We might know exactly how a friend would respond to a situation. And then sometimes they surprise us – our model was off.

The basis of our models are our premises – our fundamental assumptions. Our premises are then things we take for granted in our mental models, like how I take for granted that my car will move when I press the gas pedal.

In some models, most notably mathematics and to a lesser degree science, we explicitly state our premises – our assumptions. In math we call these axioms and in science we “define our terms”. In everyday life our assumptions are much more likely to have been taught to us as children, and these we often carry throughout life without ever stopping to question if they are true or not.

Models are a abstract representation of reality, and therefore a unavoidably partial representation. Just like the written transcript of MLK Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech cannot capture his voice the way an audio recording could, and neither could hearing the recording compare to actually being there for his march on Washington, a representation will always miss out on some aspect of reality, and to that same degree will be inaccurate.

To make sense of the sheer infinity of reality, we use models, which essentially look at reality and say: this part of reality is important, and the rest doesn’t matter. This is of course quite useful, and many models we use are quite accurate, but all models fall short of perfectly capturing that which they model. The key to building a good model is deducing which aspects of reality matter, and it is important to note that this decision happens outside the model itself. Choosing what parts of reality to include in one’s model is where assumption enters the process. The person creating the model to a degree arbitrarily determines what part of reality does and does not matter.

The arbitrariness can be tempered by comparison of the model to reality. If the model fails to predict reality at all, one can safely conclude that the inherent assumptions of the model are untrue. Counter-intuitively, models are the most dangerous to truth when they are most accurate – accurate models can lull one into a false sense of security, a false belief that the model completely represents reality as it is. When this happens the assumptions that lie at the base of the model are no longer noticed. A very huge and tragic example of this is the assumption that underlay the formula that spurred the housing market bubble and crash of 2008.

Using models is unavoidable, nor should they be avoided. However we should strive to be aware of the assumptions that underlie our models, as our starting premises will inevitably color the understanding our model produces. When we understand our models and their assumptions, they are a powerful tool for us. When we accept a model blindly without questioning its underlying assumptions, the model controls us.

I write this post to provide a base for my further ideas. I will be as diligent as possible to declare what assumptions I make in my thinking, this post itself being part of that diligence. All ideas I put forth on this blog are of course models, and thus are not perfect representations of how things are and should be examined critically. This post, along with that on critical thinking, are my boilerplate entreaties that you examine my ideas on their own merit and not just take my word for them. That being said, I believe what I have to say has value and truth, or I would not waste my time writing it nor your time reading it.

SYMBOLS AND TRUTH

Language is a system of symbols that we call words. Words (and all symbols) are abstractions. The word “dog” is not a dog. But hearing (or reading) it activates the symbol interpreting system in your brain and brings to mind your personal understanding of what a dog is. Because this happens, if I tell you “I have a dog.” you understand that I have a four legged canine animal companion.

But the symbol “dog” can never capture the reality of an actual dog- it’s loyalty, friendship, playfulness, warmth, etc. Likewise any word is not the thing itself. This becomes obvious if we think about a dictionary. A dictionary defines each word, but it does so in terms of other words. Each definition is ultimately circular in nature. Wikipedia has a list of extreme examples of this.

This is because of another aspect of the symbolic nature of words: they are arbitrary. There is nothing in particular about the word “dog” that suggests an actual dog. Hence different languages each having different words that all mean dog. (There are some words that do appear to be less arbitrary than most. For example, the words for Mother and Father are eerily similar in most languages.) Words gain their meaning through association with personal experience. When you hold, pet, smell, and play with a dog and someone tells you this is a dog you associate the experience you are having with the word “dog”. As you encounter more dogs you learn to associate the word “dog” to a general class of animal. It is through association with personal, subjective, experience that arbitrary sounds gain their meaning.

Because symbols are abstractions they can be manipulated in ways that are independent of reality. Thus if I write “flying dog”, despite no such animal existing you can still understand my meaning and imagine a dog that can fly.

Now philosophers have always debated the nature of truth and probably always will. I suspect that turning words back onto themselves – using words to establish criteria to evaluate other words – will never be completely satisfactory due to the nature of symbols themselves. Because symbols are abstractions they cannot encompass even the tiniest piece of reality wholly. As George E. P. Box said “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” As you can see, relating this phrase to the concept of truthfulness itself results in a recursive unresolvable pattern.

Putting that aside, I am going to put forth a definition of truth that is probably not novel, but that at least I have not heard of elsewhere. Truth might most usefully be defined as the degree to which a given symbolic representation matches one’s personal, subjective experience of reality. If I tell you “That black bear is eating those berries.” and you see that I am pointing to a bear that is black and is eating berries then my sentence – my symbolic representation – matches your subjective experience fully and thus is wholly true.

Let’s digress for a moment. An aspect of symbols that can introduce confusion into communication is that the same symbol can represent more than one thing, or conversely that various symbols can represent one and the same thing. Perhaps the bear that is eating the berries is a Sloth Bear, which is in fact black. But you could absolutely interpret my same sentence to mean that the bear in question is an American Black Bear – incredibly common in North America. Without some outside consideration, it is not possible to know from my words alone whether I mean a bear of the color black or a member of the species Ursus americanus. Likewise a sugary, carbonated, non-alcoholic beverage may be referred to as soda, pop, a soft drink, sodapop, or even coke (meaning any brand, not just Coke), all different and yet equally valid. To resolve either of these confusions one must either seek additional information (ask a clarifying question), utilize another medium of communication such as body language or tone of voice, or make an assumption as to their meaning.

Returning to the concept of truth, there are some interesting consequences of the definition I have put forth. Most notably that all truth expressed in symbols is necessarily subjective. This is currently a very radical statement, which I will give its own full treatment in a later post. Another is that a person can only understand a system of symbols – a theory or model – if it maps to experiences they have had. One can read about being in space, but it is an empty understanding until one actually experiences weightlessness for themselves.

I write this post to establish a foundation to the ideas I will later espouse. One most certainly can go much further that this, and explore how symbol relates to the senses, emotion, and even our physiology, but I think that unnecessary for the scope of this blog. I will go no further than the symbol and think it sufficient to explain the foundation for higher levels of understanding.

CRITICAL THINKING

The unexamined life is not worth living. -Socrates

I am writing a post about something as mundane as critical thinking – which already has entire websites and foundations devoted to spreading its gospel – because it is what has led me to my current understanding of the world. I hold many ideas that are not widely held, ideas which have lead me to choosing an unconventional lifestyle and are the basis of this blog. It is critical thinking – particularly challenging assumptions – that gives me the courage to go against conventional wisdom and forgo pursuing a career and the traditional trappings of success.

Likewise I think it is only through others thinking critically that they might come to see what I believe to be the grave problems facing our world. Looking only at the surface one is led to believe that while things aren’t perfect they’re getting better and the problems we do have will eventually be solved. This does not inspire action or change, it enables complacency and invites more of the same of what has led us into an increasingly untenable position as a species. To see beyond what is presented to us by the powers that be takes effort and the desire to do so. And thinking critically.

Critical thinking is the mental process of evaluating or analyzing information. This process is crucial because there is so much information in the world and much of it is partial or just plain untrue. Information we accept as true becomes a belief, and our beliefs shape our actions. In order to be able to be responsible for our actions we must be responsible for our beliefs. Taking personal responsibility for one’s beliefs is a huge part of being a mature human being and doing so requires critical thinking. As Socrates says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

This is why reading is so valuable. It exposes you to new ideas and new points of view and encourages you to evaluate them on their own merits as well as how they relate to beliefs you currently hold. It is for this very reason that books get banned and burned. New ideas can be disruptive to, and cause one to question, the status quo. This is not appreciated by those who have a vested interest in the Way Things Are. But the truth is not scared of the lie, nor of the smaller truth, and is happily incorporated into the bigger one, and hide it though we may always seems to out. As we grow in our understanding, so do we grow in our being.

From criticalthinking.org:

“Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior”

The extremely difficult part of it is #2 – the application of intellectual belief toward behavior. It is one thing to believe in human-caused global warming, it is an entirely different thing to give up a car while living in Suburbia. I should know because I found it impossible. Despite having roughly the same understanding of the world for many years, until now I have been able to make only superficial changes in my lifestyle to align it with my beliefs.

Take again for example climate change. Despite 97% of scientists whose entire careers have been devoted to studying the phenomenon saying that human-caused climate change is real, somehow we collectively act as if this is a point up for debate. We have U.S. Senators bringing snowballs into Congress to prove global warming is untrue. This is because to accept human-caused climate as real, and more importantly to act as if it is real, would require monumental changes in the way the world is run – the global equivalent of me giving up my car in suburbia. Those in power don’t want the ways things are done to be changed and so there is a vested interest in keeping it an open question, from being accepted as fact. Which is why Exxon knew of climate change in 1981 but funded deniers for 27 more years afterwards, to protect their bottom line at the expense of us all.

In a more general sense, I am convinced that those in power lack the motivation to make the changes necessary to save our world from coming hardship. It is up to the each of us. So I encourage you to question what you are told, and what you currently believe. I also encourage you to send me a message if you disagree with anything you find on this blog. While I, like most everyone, like to be “right”, I like most to be Right. Thus I am thankful to be shown when I hold an incorrect belief and happily admit when I am mistaken.

I leave you with the Kalama sutta:

Do not believe anything on mere hearsay.
Do not believe in traditions merely because they are old and have been handed down for many generations and in many places.
Do not believe anything because you are shown the written testimony of some ancient sage.
Do not believe in what you have fancied, thinking that, because it is extraordinary, it must have been inspired by a god or other wonderful being.
Do not believe anything merely because presumption is in its favor, or because the custom of many years inclines you to take it as true.
Do not believe anything merely on the authority of your teachers and priests.

But, whatever, after thorough investigation and reflection, you find to agree with reason and experience, as conducive to the good and benefit of one and all and of the world at large, accept only that as true, and shape your life in accordance with it.


-Buddha

Originally published July 11, 2015