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Wittgenstein: Reality is Shaped by the Words we Use

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment
of our intelligence by means of our language.”

— Wittgenstein

 

ludwig wittgenstein

Philosopher Bertrand Russell described Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.”

Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher, worked primarily in logic, mathematics, and the philosophy of language. He published one very short book: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

The book's aim was to identify the relationship between language and reality. Interestingly, he spent the last twenty-two years of his life disputing the conclusions he wrote in Tractatus. “I have been forced,” he wrote, “to recognize the grave mistakes in what I wrote in that first book.” He started over but his life was cut short before he could publish his new conclusions.

After his death these works were assembled in a book titled Philosophical Investigations, which many people consider one of the most important books of the twentieth century.

“Wittgenstein came to believe,” writes Robert Hagstrom in The Last Liberal Art, “that the meaning of words is constituted by the very function they perform within any language-game. Instead of believing there was some kind of omnipotent and separate logic to the world independent of what we observe, Wittgenstein took a step back and argued instead that the world we see is defined and given meaning by the words we choose. In short, the world is what we make of it.

To help us understand, Wittgenstein drew a very simple three-sided figure.

Wittgenstein's Triangle

Wittgenstein then writes:

Take as an example the aspects of a triangle. This triangle can be seen as a triangular hole, as a solid, as a geometrical drawing, as standing on its base, as hanging from its apex; as a mountain, as a wedge, as an arrow or pointer, as an overturned object, which is meant to stand on the shorter side of the right angle, as a half parallelogram, and as various other things … You can think now of this now of this as you look at it, can regard it now as this now as this, and then you will see it now this way, now this.

In essence, reality is shaped by the words we use.

“The words we choose,” Hagstorm continues, “give meaning (description) to what we observe.”

In order to further explain and/or defend our description, we in turn develop a story about what we believe is true. There is nothing wrong with storytelling. In fact, it is a very effective way of transferring ideas. If you stop and think, the way we communicate with each other is basically through a series of stories. Stories are open-ended and metaphorical rather than determinate.

We all use narratives but we must be careful doing so because they shape the way we see a problem.
Wittgenstein

Three Underrated Reasons for Berkshire Hathaway’s Enormous Success

Berkshire Hathaway success

Berkshire Hathaway is widely regarded as one of the most successful companies in the world. If you look at Warren Buffett’s 49 year track record with Berkshire, it almost looks easy in hindsight. Make no mistake, however, it wasn’t easy and he certainly didn’t do it alone.

At this year’s annual meeting Buffett and his longtime business partner, Charlie Munger, revealed “the secret” to their success. But it’s not really a secret and, of course, extraordinary success is typically a combination of many things.

Here are three underrated factors that carried the bulk of the weight to creating Berkshire’s success. Oddly, I don’t think you’ll find them on any business school curriculum.

1. Trust

Charlie Munger on Trust

Buffett is famous for his hands-off management style. He lets the CEOs of the companies run their show; he only asks that they send him the money they can’t use.

Good people want to work with him and this is important because most of the people running Berkshire subsidiaries are already wealthy. They don’t have to come to work; they want to come to work. And that is a huge difference. The only time you can get away with a crappy bureaucracy and a culture of distrust is when people have to come to work.

Every now and then something happens at a Berkshire company that calls into question his near abdication of responsibility to a subsidiary. “If only he had been paying attention,” the critics chirp, “this wouldn’t have happened.” Those finger-waving critics are idiots. The alternative approaches are worse, not better.

There are many positives to the approach Buffett takes.

If Buffett closely managed each of his subsidiary CEOs to the point where most bosses manage their subordinates, they’d probably quit. If he sent out memos telling them all to use a new corporate HR system, they’d stop wanting to come to work. In fact Berkshire, a company with over 300,000 employees, has no HR department. If he peppered them with relentless emails from “headquarters” on some new policy, they'd … well how do you feel about all of this stuff?

With Berkshire, Buffett wanted to do things his way. He wanted to paint his own canvas. He didn’t want other people telling him to add a little more blue here and take away a little red there. Most people want to run their own show. And the best part? This system gets more out of people than micromanaging them.

Sure sometimes things go wrong, but for the most part the outcome is positively skewed. Things go wrong in other corporate cultures, they are not immune. When things go wrong in bureaucratic cultures, however, it’s nearly impossible to hold anyone accountable because no one is really responsible for anything. And it’s hard to hold people accountable when they are not responsible. It’s a seductive illusion to think that we can create a system where people can’t mess up. Buffett's hands off approach makes it clear who is responsible for what. And this approach, not stock options,  creates a real ownership culture.

This system also frees up Buffett’s time. He doesn’t have to chase management details, read power-points, etc. He can sit and read and think — that means he does what he does best. And judging by the results, this has worked out well.

Hiring the right people and trusting them is incredibly underrated and yet nearly impossible to find in large established bureaucratic organizations. Yet as Buffett shows, it’s a much better approach. Trust is incredibly powerful.

2. (Quickly) Scramble Out of Your Mistakes

Warren Buffett on Mistakes

You know the old adage, when you find yourself in a hole the first thing to do is stop digging. That applies to business as well as life.

In the late 1960s Buffett acquired a department store, Hochschild-Kohn, through a company called Diversified Retailing, which later merged with Berkshire.

The people running the company were, in Buffett’s words, “first class.” Retailing, however, is a difficult industry, even with a first class management team. They were, in Buffett's words, “running in quicksand.” Realizing this quickly after the ink dried on the contract, Berkshire “scrambled” out of it, selling Hochschild-Kohn as quickly as they could — 3 years.

Business schools don’t generally teach this either. What they teach and reinforce, in so many ways, is that you can be the hero. You can be the exception to the base rate.

But in life and business, you don’t need to be the hero. There are no points for difficulty, so as Munger alluded to, smart people will play where competition is weak.

You can have the best management team that money can buy and still fail big in retailing — a recent example being JC Penney.

Buffett learned quickly that, in his words, “When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.”

3. Remove Ignorance

Warren Buffett on See's Candies

Diversified Retailing also owned shares in a better business: Blue Chip Stamps, which provided supermarkets and other retailing outlets trading stamps to give their customers that could be exchanged for merchandise.

The contrast between running a good business and a poor one stuck with Munger and Buffett and they decided to pay up for a real quality business. On January 3, 1972 Blue Chip Stamps bought See’s Candies, a West Coast Manufacturer and retailer of boxed-chocolates. See's is an extraordinary business.

As a great business, most people think that See’s main contribution to Berkshire was its overwhelming financial success. It wasn’t. According to Munger, See’s main contribution was “ignorance removal.”

“We were barely smart enough to buy it,“ he said. See’s taught them a powerful lesson, the value of strong brand names.

Without See’s they never would have purchased Coke shares in the 80s. And without Coke, Berkshire would be a lot less prosperous today as that investment has been one of their best.

“If there's any secret we have, it’s ignorance removal. And the nice thing is we still have a lot of ignorance left to remove,” Munger said at the 2014 Shareholders meeting.

Removing ignorance is about continuously getting smarter. Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.

***

I don’t know why more people don’t copy these three underrated factors to Berkshire’s success.

To sum up:

1. Hire good people and trust them.
2. Quickly admit mistakes and scramble out of them.
3. Remove your ignorance by always learning.

This formula is simple but not easy.

The Central Mistake of Historicism: Karl Popper on Why Trend is Not Destiny

Philosophy can be a little dry in concept. The word itself conjures up images of thinking about thought, why we exist, and other metaphysical ideas that seem a little divorced from the everyday world.

One true philosopher who bucked the trend was the genius Austrian philosopher of science, Karl Popper.

Popper had at least three important lines of inquiry:

  1. How does progressive scientific thought actually happen?
  2. What type of society do we need to allow for scientific progress to be made?
  3. What can we say we actually know about the world?

Popper’s work led to his idea of falsifiability as the main criterion of a scientific theory. Simply put, an idea or theory doesn’t enter the realm of science until we can state it in such a way that a test could prove it wrong. This important identifier allowed him to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

An interesting piece of Popper’s work was an attack on what he called historicism — the idea that history has fixed laws or trends that inevitably lead to certain outcomes. Included would be the Marxist interpretation of human history as a push and pull between classes, the Platonic ideals of the systemic “rise and fall” of cities and societies in a fundamentally predictable way, John Stuart Mill’s laws of succession, and even the theory that humanity inevitably progresses towards a “better” and happier outcome, however defined. Modern ideas in this category might well include Thomas Piketty’s theory of how capitalism leads to an accumulation of dangerous inequality, the “inevitability” of America’s fall from grace in the fashion of the Roman empire, or even Russell Brand's popular diatribe on utopian upheaval from a few years back.

Popper considered this kind of thinking pseudoscience, or worse — a dangerous ideology that tempts wannabe state planners and utopians to control society. (Perhaps through violent revolution, for example.) He did not consider such historicist doctrines falsifiable. There is no way, for example, to test whether Marxist theory is actually true or not, even in a thought experiment. We must simply take it on faith, based on a certain interpretation of history, that the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are at odds, and that the latter is destined to create uprisings. (Destined being the operative word — it implies inevitability.) If we’re to assert that the there is a Law of Increasing Technological Complexity in human society, which many are tempted to do these days, is that actually a testable hypothesis? Too frequently, these Laws become immune to falsifying evidence — any new evidence is interpreted through the lens of the theory. Instead of calling them interpretations, we call them Laws, or some similarly connotative word.

More deeply, Popper realized the important point that history is a unique process — it only gets run once. We can’t derive Laws of History that predict the future the way we can with, say, a law of physics that carries predictive capability under stated conditions. (i.e. If I drop a ceramic coffee cup more than 2 feet, it will shatter.) We can only merely deduce some tendencies of human nature, laws of the physical world, and so on, and generate some reasonable expectation that if X happens, Y is somewhat likely to follow. But viewing the process of human or organic history as possessing the regularity of a solar system is folly.

He discusses this in his book The Poverty of Historicism.

The evolution of life on earth, or of a human society, is a unique historical process. Such a process, we may assume, proceeds in accordance with all kinds of causal laws, for example, the laws of mechanics, of chemistry, of heredity and segregation, of natural selection, etc. Its description, however, is not a law, but only a single historical statement. Universal laws make assertions concerning some unvarying order[…] and although there is no reason why the observation of one single instance should not incite us to formulate a universal law, nor why, if we are lucky, we should not even hit upon the truth, it is clear that any law, formulated in this or in any other way, must be tested by new instances before it can be taken seriously by science. But we cannot hope to test a universal hypothesis nor to find a natural law acceptable to science if we are ever confined to the observation of one unique process. Nor can the observation of one unique process help us to foresee its future development. The most careful observation of one developing caterpillar will to help us to predict its transformation into a butterfly.

Popper realized that once we deduce a theory of the Laws of Human Development, carried into the ever-after, we are led into a gigantic confirmation bias problem. For example, we can certainly find confirmations for the idea that humans have progressed, in a specifically defined way, towards increasing technological complexity. But is that a Law of history, in the inviolable sense? For that, we really can’t say.

The problem is that to establish cause-and-effect, in a scientific sense, requires two things: A universal law (or a set of them) and some initial conditions (and ideally these are played out over a really large sample size to give us confidence). Popper explains:

I suggest that to give a causal explanation of a certain specific event means deducing a statement describing this event from two kinds of premises: from some universal laws, and from some singular or specific statements which we may call specific initial conditions.

For example, we can say that we have given a causal explanation of the breaking of a certain thread if we find this thread could carry a weight of only one pound, and that a weight of two pounds was put on it. If we analyze this causal explanation, then we find that two different constituents are involved. (1) Some hypotheses of the character of universal laws of nature; in this case, perhaps: ‘For every thread of a given structure s (determined by material, thickness, etc.) there is a characteristic weight w such that the thread will break if any weight exceeding w is suspended on it’ and ‘For every thread of the structure s, the characteristic weight w equals one pound.’ (2) Some specific statements—the initial conditions—pertaining to the particular event in question; in this case we may have two such statements: ’This is a thread of structure s, and ‘The weight put on this thread was a weight of two pounds’.

The trend is not destiny

Here we hit on the problem of trying to assert any fundamental laws by which human history must inevitably progress. Trend is not destiny. Even if we can derive and understand certain laws of human biological nature, the trends of history itself dependent on conditions, and conditions change.

Explained trends do exist, but their persistence depends on the persistence of certain specific initial conditions (which in turn may sometimes be trends).

Mill and his fellow historicists overlook the dependence of trends on initial conditions. They operate with trends as if they were unconditional, like laws. Their confusion of laws with trends make them believe in trends which are unconditional (and therefore general); or, as we may say, in ‘absolute trends'; for example a general historical tendency towards progress—‘a tendency towards a better and happier state’. And if they at all consider a ‘reduction’ of their tendencies to laws, they believe that these tendencies can be immediately derived from universal laws alone, such as the laws of psychology (or dialectical materialism, etc.).

This, we may say, is the central mistake of historicism. Its “laws of development” turn out to be absolute trends; trends which, like laws, do not depend on initial conditions, and which carry us irresistibly in a certain direction into the future. They are the basis of unconditional prophecies, as opposed to conditional scientific predictions.

[…]

The point is that these (initial) conditions are so easily overlooked. There is, for example, a trend towards an ‘accumulation of means of production’ (as Marx puts it). But we should hardly expect it to persist in a population which is rapidly decreasing; and such a decrease may in turn depend on extra-economic conditions, for example, on chance interventions, or conceivably on the direct physiological (perhaps bio-chemical) impact of an industrial environment. There are, indeed, countless possible conditions; and in order to be able to examine these possibilities in our search for the true conditions of the trend, we have all the time to try to imagine conditions under which the trend in question would disappear. But this is just what the historicist cannot do. He firmly believes in his favorite trend, and conditions under which it would disappear to him are unthinkable. The poverty of historicism, we might say, is a poverty of imagination. The historicist continuously upbraids those who cannot imagine a change in their little worlds; yet it seems that the historicist is himself deficient in imagination, for he cannot imagine a change in the conditions of change.

Still interested? Check out our previous post on Popper’s theory of falsification, or check out The Poverty of Historicism to explore his idea more deeply. A warning: It’s not a beach read. I had to read it twice to get the basic idea. But, once grasped, it’s well worth the time.

Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability

In this TED talk, Brené Brown, who studies vulnerability, brings us into how we can live a more meaningful life.

Brown went back to the research and spent years trying to understand what choices whole-hearted people, who live from a deep sense of worthiness, were making. “What are we doing with vulnerability? Why do we struggle with it so much? Am I alone in struggling with vulnerability?” Here is what she learned:

We numb vulnerability — when we're waiting for the call. It was funny, I sent something out on Twitter and on Facebook that says, “How would you define vulnerability? What makes you feel vulnerable?” And within an hour and a half, I had 150 responses. Because I wanted to know what's out there. Having to ask my husband for help because I'm sick, and we're newly married; initiating sex with my husband; initiating sex with my wife; being turned down; asking someone out; waiting for the doctor to call back; getting laid off; laying off people — this is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability.

[…]

One of the things that I think we need to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn't just have to be addiction. The other thing we do is we make everything that's uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I'm right, you're wrong. Shut up. That's it. Just certain. The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today. There's no discourse anymore. There's no conversation. There's just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort. We perfect. If there's anyone who wants their life to look like this, it would be me, but it doesn't work. Because what we do is we take fat from our butts and put it in our cheeks. (Laughter) Which just, I hope in 100 years, people will look back and go, “Wow.”

And we perfect, most dangerously, our children. Let me tell you what we think about children. They're hardwired for struggle when they get here. And when you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not to say, “Look at her, she's perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect — make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh grade.” That's not our job. Our job is to look and say, “You know what? You're imperfect, and you're wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” That's our job. Show me a generation of kids raised like that, and we'll end the problems I think that we see today. We pretend that what we do doesn't have an effect on people. We do that in our personal lives. We do that corporate — whether it's a bailout, an oil spill, a recall — we pretend like what we're doing doesn't have a huge impact on other people. I would say to companies, this is not our first rodeo, people. We just need you to be authentic and real and say, “We're sorry. We'll fix it.”

But there's another way, and I'll leave you with this. This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee — and that's really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that's excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we're wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I'm just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive.”

Still curious? Brown is the author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I think this talk also ties in nicely to True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart.

An Extraordinary Birthday Present (Plus a Free Re:Think Innovation Ticket)

So I turn 36 this weekend.

Ask anyone that knows me and they'll tell you I'm difficult — or even impossible — to buy presents for. Which isn't true. I love wine, books, and memberships. But most of all, I love it when people do something nice for someone they'll never meet. 

In the past, we've given to the Ottawa food bank and purchased over $10,000 in books for schools that need them. Together we've done some amazing things.

Now I want to do something I've never done on my birthday.

In lieu of gifts, my birthday wish this year is to raise $1,000 supporting something near and dear to my heart: Education.

Why? Because the best way out of poverty is literacy.

I want to give back to the most in need, most impoverished schools. And I want your help.

What if it were your kids going to these schools? 

I'll sweeten the pot.

Here's how to get it:

  • Spread the word however you can (Twitter, Facebook, Megaphone, …). Send people to this post or the Donorschoose.org page.
  • Leave a comment below telling me how you spread the word  (Measurement of any type gets huge bonus points. Comment must be put up no later than 11:59pm EST on Sunday, July 12th, 2015.)
  • Lastly, answer one question at the very top of your comment: “What does literacy mean to you?” Put “#LiteracyMeans” at the very top, followed by your answer. This is an IQ test in following directions, as I’ll skip entries without #LiteracyMeans at the top.

I'll pick the winner on Monday July 13th. You must be over 18, void where prohibited, no aliens, etc.

The best reason of all is that you'll feel awesome. Even if it's $1 it would mean the world to me.

Again, here is where you can donate $36, $1, $1,000, or whatever you can.

(This unusual birthday present isn't my idea, I stole it from Tim Ferriss. When people have better ideas, don't fight it. Just adopt them.)

The Iconic Think Different Apple Commercial Narrated by Steve Jobs

Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they're not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

— Steve Jobs, 1997

I've been thinking a lot lately about creativity and to what extent attitude plays a role.

The most creative people I know are often the ones who have a hell-raiser trait in them, regardless of whether this comes from nature or nurture.

These are people who think different, feel different, behave different. These are the people who can't easily fit into the square corporate box.

Organizations both value and despise them. They make people uncomfortable. They challenge thoughts, processes, and the status quo. They disrupt and dismiss. They push. They raise the bar for everyone else and they call people out. They're not being difficult on purpose — they're being themselves. They see things differently. And that comes with both opportunities and challenges.

Many people — especially those who are less secure about themselves — have a hard time working with people that push boundaries and challenge the way things are done. They don't want to be challenged. They don't want the bar raised. They don't want to explain why something needs to stay the same. All of this, after all, is exhausting. It's much easier to just ignore, dismiss, or add layers of management to dilute the impact these people can have.

The problem with that approach, however, is that you dilute what your organization is capable of. Embracing people who think differently is not a sign of weakness as a leader (and I'm not advocating for embracing everyone who thinks differently, there is some nuance here). Allowing yourself to hear the perspective of others who think differently is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength.

***

Two related Farnam Street Posts:

Steve Jobs on Creativity. Steve Jobs had a lot to say about creativity.

Steve Jobs on The Most Important thing. Life can be so much better once you understand this one simple fact.

Who’s in Charge of Our Minds? The Interpreter

One of the most fascinating discoveries of modern neuroscience is that the brain is a collection of distinct modules (grouped, highly connected neurons) performing specific functions rather than a unified system.

We'll get to why this is so important when we introduce The Interpreter later on.

This modular organization of the human brain is considered one of the key properties that sets us apart from animals. So much so, that it has displaced the theory that it stems from disproportionately bigger brains for our body size.

As neuroscientist Dr. Michael Gazzaniga points out in his wonderful book Who's In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, in terms of numbers of cells, the human brain is a proportionately scaled-up primate brain: It is what is expected for a primate of our size and does not possess relatively more neurons. They also found that the ratio between nonneuronal brain cells and neurons in human brain structures is similar to those found in other primates.

So it's not the size of our brains or the number of neurons, it's about the patterns of connectivity. As brains scaled up from insect to small mammal to larger mammal, they had to re-organize, for the simple reason that billions of neurons cannot all be connected to one another — some neurons would be way too far apart and too slow to communicate. Our brains would be gigantic and require a massive amount of energy to function.

Instead, our brain specializes and localizes. As Dr. Gazzaniga puts it, “Small local circuits, made of an interconnected group of neurons, are created to perform specific processing jobs and become automatic.” This is an important advance in our efforts to understand the mind.

Dr. Gazzaniga is most famous for his work studying split-brain patients, where many of the discoveries we're talking about were refined and explored. Split-brain patients give us a natural controlled experiment to find out “what the brain is up to” — and more importantly, how it does its work. What Gazzaniga and his co-researchers found was fascinating.

Emergence

We experience our conscious mind as a single unified thing. But if Gazzaniga & company are right, it most certainly isn't. How could a “specialized and localized” modular brain give rise to the feeling of “oneness” we feel so strongly about? It would seem there are too many things going on separately and locally:

Our conscious awareness is the mere tip of the iceberg of nonconscious processing. Below our level of awareness is the very busy nonconscious brain hard at work. Not hard for us to imagine are the housekeeping jobs the brain constantly struggles to keep homeostatic mechanisms up and running, such as our heart beating, our lungs breathing, and our temperature just right. Less easy to imagine, but being discovered left and right over the past fifty years, are the myriads of nonconscious processes smoothly putt-putting along. Think about it.

To begin with there are all the automatic visual and other sensory processing we have talked about. In addition, our minds are always being unconsciously biased by positive and negative priming processes, and influenced by category identification processes. In our social world, coalitionary bonding processes, cheater detection processes, and even moral judgment processes (to name only a few) are cranking away below our conscious mechanisms. With increasingly sophisticated testing methods, the number and diversity of identified processes is only going to multiply.

So what's going on? Who's controlling all this stuff? The idea is that the brain works more like traffic than a car. No one is controlling it!

It's due to a principle of complex systems called emergence, and it explains why all of these “specialized and localized” processes can give rise to what seems like a unified mind.

The key to understanding emergence is to understand that there are different levels of organization. My favorite analogy is that of the car, which I have mentioned before. If you look at an isolated car part, such as a cam shaft, you cannot predict that the freeway will be full of traffic at 5:15 PM. Monday through Friday. In fact, you could not even predict the phenomenon of traffic would even occur if you just looked at a brake pad. You cannot analyze traffic at the level of car parts. Did the guy who invented the wheel ever visualize the 405 in Los Angeles on Friday evening? You cannot even analyze traffic at the level of the individual car. When you get a bunch of cars and drivers together, with the variables of location, time, weather, and society, all in the mix, then at that level you can predict traffic. A new set of laws emerge that aren't predicted from the parts alone.

Emergence, Gazzaniga goes on, is how to understand the brain. Sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, neurons, modules, the mind, and a collection of minds (a society) are all different levels of organization, with their own laws that cannot necessarily be predicted from the properties of the level below.

The unified mind we feel present emerges from the thousands of lower-level processes operating in parallel. Most of it is so automatic that we have no idea it's going on. (Not only does the mind work bottom-up but top down processes also influence it. In other words, what you think influences what you see and hear.)

And when we do start consciously explaining what's going on — or trying to — we start getting very interesting results. The part of our brain that seeks explanations and infers causality turns out to be a quirky little beast.

The Interpreter

Let's say you were to see a snake and jump back, automatically and quickly. Did you choose that action? If asked, you'd almost certainly say so, but the truth is more complicated.

If you were to have asked me why I jumped, I would have replied that I thought I'd seen a snake. That answer certainly makes sense, but the truth is I jumped before I was conscious of the snake: I had seen it, I didn't know I had seen it. My explanation is from post hoc information I have in my conscious system: The facts are that I jumped and that I saw a snake. The reality, however, is that I jumped way before (in a world of milliseconds) I was conscious of the snake. I did not make a conscious decision to jump and then consciously execute it. When I answered that question, I was, in a sense, confabulating: giving a fictitious account of a past event, believing it to be true. The real reason I jumped was an automatic nonconscious reaction to the fear response set into play by the amygdala. The reason I would have confabulated is that our human brains are driven to infer causality. They are driven to explain events that make sense out of the scattered facts. The facts that my conscious brain had to work were that I saw a snake, and I jumped. It did not register that I jumped before I was consciously aware of the snake.

Here's how it works: A thing happens, we react, we feel something about it, and then we go on explaining it. Sensory information is fed into an explanatory module which Gazzaniga calls The Interpreter, and studying split-brain patients showed him that it resides in the left hemisphere of the brain.

With that knowledge, Gazzaniga and his team were able to do all kinds of clever things to show how ridiculous our Interpreter can often be, especially in split-brain patients.

Take this case of a split-brain patient unconsciously making up a nonsense story when its two hemispheres are shown different images and instructed to choose a related image from a group of pictures. Read carefully:

We showed a split-brain patient two pictures: A chicken claw was shown to his right visual field, so the left hemisphere only saw the claw picture, and a snow scene was shown to the left visual field, so the right hemisphere saw only that. He was then asked to choose a picture from an array of pictures placed in fully view in front of him, which both hemispheres could see.

The left hand pointed to a shovel (which was the most appropriate answer for the snow scene) and the right hand pointed to a chicken (the most appropriate answer for the chicken claw). Then we asked why he chose those items. His left-hemisphere speech center replied, “Oh, that's simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken,” easily explaining what it knew. It had seen the chicken claw.

Then, looking down at his left hand pointing to the shovel, without missing a beat, he said, “And you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.” Immediately, the left brain, observing the left hand's response without the knowledge of why it had picked that item, put into a context that would explain it. It interpreted the response in a context consistent with what it knew, and all it knew was: Chicken claw. It knew nothing about the snow scene, but it had to explain the shovel in his left hand. Well, chickens do make a mess, and you have to clean it up. Ah, that's it! Makes sense.

What was interesting was that the left hemisphere did not say, “I don't know,” which truly was the correct answer. It made up a post hoc answer that fit the situation. It confabulated, taking cues from what it knew and putting them together in an answer that made sense.

The left hand, responding to the snow Gazzaniga covertly showed the left visual field, pointed to the snow shovel. This all took place in the right hemisphere of the brain (think of it like an “X” — the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body and vice versa). But since it was a split-brain patient, the left hemisphere was not given any of the information about snow.

And yet, the left hemisphere is where the Interpreter resides! So what did the Interpreter do, asked to explain why the shovel was chosen seeing but having no information about snow, only about chickens? It made up a story about shoveling chicken coops!

Gazzaniga goes on to explain several cases of being able to fool the left brain Interpreter over and over, and in often subtle ways.

***

This left-brain module is what we use to explain causality, seeking it for its own sake. The Interpreter, like all of our mental modules, is a wonderful adaption that's led us to understand and explain causality and the world around us, to our great advantage, but as any good student of social psychology knows, we'll simply make up a plausible story if we have nothing solid to go on — leading to a narrative fallacy.

This leads to odd results that seem pretty maladaptive, like our tendency to gamble like idiots. (Charlie Munger calls this mis-gambling compulsion.) But outside of the artifice of the casino, the Interpreter works quite well.

But here's the catch. In the words of Gazzaniga, “The interpreter is only as good as the information it gets.”

The interpreter receives the results of the computations of a multitude of modules. It does not receive the information that there are multitudes of modules. It does not receive the information about how the modules work. It does not receive the information that there is a pattern-recognition system in the right hemisphere. The interpreter is a module that explains events from the information it does receive.

[…]

The interpreter is receiving data from the domains that monitor the visual system, the somatosensory system, the emotions, and cognitive representations. But as we just saw above, the interpreter is only as good as the information it receives. Lesions or malfunctions in any one of these domain-monitoring systems leads to an array of peculiar neurological conditions that involve the formation of either incomplete or delusional understandings about oneself, other individuals, objects, and the surrounding environment, manifesting in what appears to be bizarre behavior. It no longer seems bizarre, however, once you understand that such behaviors are the result of the interpreter getting no, or bad, information.

This can account for a lot of the ridiculous behavior and ridiculous narratives we see around us. The Interpreter must deal with what it's given, and as Gazzaniga's work shows, it can be manipulated and tricked. He calls it “hijacking” — and when the Interpreter is hijacked, it makes pretty bad decisions and generates strange explanations.

Anyone who's watched a friend acting hilariously when wearing a modern VR headset can see how easy it is to “hijack” one's sensory perceptions even if the conscious brain “knows” that it's not real. And of course, Robert Cialdini once famously described this hijacking process as a “click, whirr” reaction to social stimuli. It's a powerful phenomenon.

***

What can we learn from this?

The story of the multi-modular mind and the Interpreter module shows us that the brain does not have a rational “central command station” — your mind is at the mercy of what it's fed. The Interpreter is constantly weaving a story of what's going on around us, applying causal explanations to the data it's being fed; doing the best job it can with what it's got.

This is generally useful: a few thousand generations of data has honed our modules to understand the world well enough to keep us surviving and thriving. The job of the brain is to pass on our genes. But that doesn't mean that it's always making optimal decisions in the modern world.

We must realize that our brain can be fooled; it can be tricked, played with, and we won't always realize it immediately. Our Interpreter will weave a plausible story — that's it's job.

For this reason, Charlie Munger employs a “two track” analysis: What are the facts; and where is my brain fooling me? We're wise to follow suit.

The Mis-Match Problem

In this video, Malcolm Gladwell speaks on the challenge of hiring in the modern world.

One of those challenges, the mis-match problem, happens when we use criteria to judge someone for a job that is radically out of step with the actual demands of the job itself. Despite our best intentions we do this all of the time. Gladwell says “we want to cling to these incredibly outdated and simplistic measures of ability.”

Why do mis-match problems exist?
1. Our desire for certainty — the desire to impose certainty on something that is not certain.
2. Increase in complexity in professions.

“The craving for that physics-style precision does nothing but get you in terrible trouble.”

See more on the mis-match problem.

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, Blink, Outliers and most recently, What the Dog Saw.

David Ogilvy 10 Tips on Writing

David Ogilvy 10 Tips on Writing

In 1982, the original “Mad Man” David Ogilvy, sent the following internal memo to all employees of his advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, titled “How to Write.”

Via The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners:

The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.

Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.

Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:

1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.

2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.

3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.

5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.

6. Check your quotations.

7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning—and then edit it.

8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.

10. If you want ACTION, don't write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

***

Still Curious? Read Confessions of an Advertising Man and The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners.

Garrett Hardin: The Other Side of Expertise


From Garrett Hardin‘s mind-blowingly awesome Filters Against Folly.

In our highly technological society we cannot do without experts. We accept this fact of life, but not without anxiety. There is much truth in the definition of the specialist as someone who “knows more and more about less and less.” But there is another side to the coin of expertise. A really great idea in science often has its birth as apparently no more than a particular answer to a narrow question; it is only later that it turns out that the ramifications of the answer reach out into the most surprising corners. What begins as knowledge about very little turns out to be wisdom about a great deal.

So it was with the development of the theory of probability. It all began in the seventeenth century, when one of the minor French nobility asked the philosopher-scientist Blaise Pascal to devise a fair way to divide the stakes in an interrupted gambling game. Pascal consulted with lawyer-mathematician friend Pierre de Fermat, and the two of them quickly laid the foundation of probability theory. Out of a trivial question about gambling came profound insights that later bore splendid fruit in physics and biology, in the verification of the causes of disease, the calculation of fair insurance premiums, and the achievement of quality control in manufacturing processes. And much more.

The service of experts is indispensable even if we are poor at ascertaining under which circumstances they add value, when they add noise, and when they are harmful. Hardin cautions that each new expertise introduces “new possibilities of error.”

“It is unfortunately true that experts are generally better at seeing their particular kinds of trees than the forest of all life.”

— Garrett Hardin

Thoughtful laymen — that's us — can, however, “become very good at seeing the forest, particularly if they lose their timidity about challenging the experts. … In the universal role of laymen we all have to learn to filter the essential meaning out of the too verbose, too aggressively technical statements of the experts. Fortunately, this is not as difficult a task as some experts would have us believe.”

Filters Against Folly is Hardin's attempt “to show there …. (are) some rather simple methods of checking the validity of the statements of experts.”