TLDR: There is no reality we can agree upon, since the information overload upon homo sapiens is so massive we use mental frameworks as filters to block out the noise. This is why people you may care about don’t wear masks or argue politics on Twitter.
Before Covid hit, I used to go to SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, one of the three massive confestival events held every March. The other two spectaculars, music and film, imbue the tech-geekfest with hipster cred, as if listening to a roboticist from Japan on stage explain why he created a doppelgänger of himself in plastic with similar hair made sense, it’s all cool, because an indie filmmaker is launching her bit on aliens among us just down the street.
After panels, on 6th Street filled with young technologists and filmmakers drinking beers, the conversations continue, usually ending up at a posh bar at The Driskell. This hotel was built in 1886 by a wealthy cattle baron, has a facade of pillars and architectural ornamentation, and while it now may be owned by The Hyatt (with a link on the main corporate site offering 15% off bookings!), it is beautifully classic — towering white pillars with black bases in the lobby, stained glass overhead lights, and stairs leading to a second-story lounge filled with lush leather seats pinched by brass buttons. The layout is designed for conversations, clusters of couches in U-shapes. Last time at SXSW, I spent two hours debating a VC guy, who told me to quit my agency because “Let me guess, all the value you provide is in strategy but all the money you make is by charging out execution at $150 an hour.” I nodded, and of course never followed his advice.
The point of SXSW Interactive is to predict the future. Boy, did they all get it wrong. Covid has screwed us all, in different ways, some ill or dying and others slammed by an imploding economy. If you still have a job, you’re likely working 60 hours a week, while learning arcane new technology systems and looking over your shoulder. Amid cultural devastation, America has become even more divided, with simple things such as masks or future vaccines become fodder for harsh arguments, firings of senior ad spokesmen, an incredible cage-fight match of emotional right-or-wrong. The musings on whether home IoT will revolutionize society have faded as we now argue over which path can make us heathy and employed again.
So — why are you right, and why does everyone else feel so wrong?
The misleading mental frameworks of reality
During Covid, I’ve been reading a storm, and four books bring me to my point: There is no reality. At least, none that we can all agree on. So let’s go. In order: Quantum physics, dreams, blushing, and irrationality. Leading to the conclusion that our mental frameworks distort all of our thinking so much that … none of us is really right.
Quantum physics: Sean Carroll’s “Something Deeply Hidden.”
Sean Carroll is a wonk at the California Institute of Technology who studies quantum physics, the tiniest bits, and gravity and cosmology, the giant building blocks. By putting the two puzzles together, Sean becomes a staunch advocate for the idea of multiple universes.
To be clear, there are *two* theories of multiple realities — one, from the cosmologists who peer very far into space, that there is an unlimited number of worlds so given this infinity there is absolutely another Earth out there very far away in which you invented computer operating systems and are as rich as Bill Gates. The second, which Sean digs into, is the micro-tiny-quantum multiple universe, in which subatomic particles act as waves and we can’t pin them down easily, as if they are in two places at once until observed; and given the tiny bits’ “entanglement” with the larger world looking in, this means at every instant the universe is splitting into two different realities. So again, you get to be Bill Gates, but right here on this planet.
Sean’s point: Reality splits every second into alternate pathways, so there can be no single right path or answer.
Visions: Sigmund Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams“
Sigmund Freud was a dark-minded man, obsessed with sex, and if we are honest, thought a little too much about what dreams mean. (He suggested, for instance, that women who dream of falling fear they will become “a fallen woman.” Geez, what a mansplainer…) But Sigmund had a good thesis. He spent thousands of hours analyzing patients’ dreams and came to the realization that all dreams, in which we spend about four years of our lives in REM state, represent “wish fulfillment.” The narratives we construct while asleep are stories trying to find paths to what we desire. Freud posited that our dreams are made up of recent stimuli from the prior day’s events, but also lingering childhood traumas. We have both composers and censors in our minds; if we dig deep upon awakening, we can trace back the source of dreams to events that emotionally disturbed us, and project them forward to try to understand the desire guiding our future. Freud segues a bit, the long book reads in parts like a caffeinated blog (OK, Sig did coke a lot, it was 1899 and considered medicine), but his conclusion is absolutely brilliant:
“For the dream originates from the past in every sense. To be sure the ancient belief that the dream reveals the future is not entirely devoid of truth. By representing to us a wish as fulfilled the dream certainly leads us into the future; but this future, taken by the dreamer as the present, has been formed into the likeness of that past by the indestructible wish.”
Sigmund’s point: We all wish for something in our subconscious and that wish guides all of our actions, even if our alert minds do not comprehend.
Blushing: “Humankind” by Rutger Bregman
Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian who has written four books on the intersection of philosophy and history. In “Humankind,” he posits that our species is actually wired to be — wait for it! — nice to each other. Friendliness is our best weapon, the survival trait that leads us to thrive. In a perverse positive affront to all the histories and psychologies and Darwinistic survival-of-the-fittest fights and World Wars, Rutger posits that compassion, empathy, sharing, transparency, and honesty lead to survival.
He has some fun scientific backups on this: Homo sapiens is the only species of several hundred hominids with white eyes around the iris, making the direction of our gaze clearly visible and thus giving away our intent. We are also the only species to blush, giving away our emotions, showcasing our weaknesses. Why?! Why would any species charged with survival signal to those around them their intent, their direction, their emotional state? What a gap in our armor! Except Rutger suggests, opening our hearts to others draws others closer, leads to leadership, to mates, to genetic propagation. The humans who best express their true feelings, of understanding and a willingness to help, eventually gather more attraction.
Rutger’s point: Sharing is a super-power, and the kindest of us all will thrive.
You’re illogical! “Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason” by Justin E. H. Smith
This is the last of the foursome of my recent Covid readings, a book about the philosophical history of reason vs. rage. Justin E. H. Smith here suggests that rationality (math, logic) and irrationality (passion, emotion, religion, myth) have always been a Möbius strip for humanity, intertwined in a way that neither can be teased apart. The Enlightenment, the phase of “awakening” of science with the Karl Popper-ish scrutiny of theories that must be provably un-false, has been challenged this century by an unexpected resurgence of nationalism, tribalism, anti-expert fighting, and more broadly conservative religious uprisings. Science is on the down-and-out as millions with satellite-empowered smartphones argue over about whether global warming is real, or if we can really trust the Post Office.
Justin says, it’s all cool — the cycle of rational-to-irrational belief systems is normal. And eggheaded scientists should consider: there is cultural value in the emotional filtering of information: Religion, at its core, is a blunt cultural guidebook of hints pointing us toward actions that will help us and our community survive. Don’t sleep with your neighbor’s wife because while it might feel good, you’ll damage the community. Be kind to others because while you may miss a coin in the next deal, the communal bonding will help you all survive the next drought. Etc. etc.
But burning people who disagree? For centuries, religion was core and whacky experiments challenging convention led to you being burned at the stake. Yikes. While such horrific events are not justified, the point here is what we believe is always filtered by the zeitgeist of the day; none of us can look beyond our cultural imprints to see what really is true. Future generations may shake their heads in horror at scientists in our year of 2020 studying global warming who go home to cook dead animals upon their grill or jog that weekend with plastic running shoes manufactured by poor workers on the other side of the globe. What hypocrisy, they may holler, but our filtered ears are immune now to such cries.
Justin’s point: Irrationality is normal because all of us sit behind mental frameworks, shielding us from information we don’t like or whose cognitive load is simply overwhelming. Logic is the path out, but the thicket of protective thorns we raise is just too dense.
Conclusion: None of us is right!
It is an amazing conceit for us in our armchairs to look back upon human history and laugh, snottily, at all those who once thought the Earth was the center, that women were second to men, that some humans had the right to own other humans as slaves — but then to think, we all have it figured out now.
Dreams with our own wishes cannot be clearly understood. Humans wired to signal empathy still fight. Logic arguments are twisted by the cultural filters they rise in. And under it all, quantum physics means whichever direction we choose to go in, in another universe, the other is followed.
We don’t understand what we want.
We signal empathy but ignore it.
Our logic is polluted by emotion, myth, mental filters.
And whichever path we take twists in the wind into multiple realities.
Being “right” is a Möbius strip, with the alternative argument lying just on the other side. All of this is a lesson in humility as we struggle to defend our own points of views and fail to understand others. The logic of the universe is not a binary bit, up or down, as in here but not there. Logic is a wave function, with probabilities of being in any place, right or wrong, at any time.