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flamingsword: Geek pride with glasses (geek pride)
You'd think that the invention of a globe-spanning resource that gives us access to all of human knowledge would make decisions more simple. You'd think.

But instead of reducing our anxiety and making us more certain, the internet has exposed us to all of the conflicting interpretations of its data and to data that is factually wrong which we often have difficulty distinguishing from the truth. Noticing when you are confused is the first part to knowing when you are working from faulty assumptions, a situation common to the Information Age. Then, once you have started to learn where your blind spots are and how to navigate them, you need to practice spotting your assumptions. Assumption based planning is mostly used by businesses, but you can use the same tools in your life. Once you get a handle on both those sets of figuring out blind spots and assumptions, try reversing your assumptions to help you explore the idea space of what possibilities there are, and how probable they may be.

Being forced to assign a probability a numerical value emotionally divorces you from the anxiety and paralysis of trying to weigh decisions, taking the decision making away from the emotional limbic brain and putting it in the prefrontal cortex, where we plan things and use our executive functions without as much emotional involvement. It is a huge piece of how you can deal with uncertainty without it making you crazy, and as such is an invaluable skill for navigating the internet. Or just for being a person.

So how do we deal emotionally with never being certain of three quarters of our operating assumptions? Well, first we have to maintain our social networks as a form of preemptive damage control. We have to err on the side of caution at all times and act ethically so that when we do mess something up, people will give us the benefit of the doubt about our intentions. Natural laws have no pity, but if you were acting in good faith to keep people safe, most people will forgive you when you get stuff wrong as long as you fix it later. And second, as you get faster and more secure in making decisions while dealing with the presence of uncertainty, you'll start to become more familiar with how much thought is productive and how much is just dithering and overthinking. You'll be able to draw a boundary on knowing when “good enough” is actually good enough without either oversimplifying or making things more complex than they are likely to be just so that you can put off having to make the decision.

We have to deal with the vulnerability of openly not knowing stuff, and there are three tactics that make the drowning feeling of not having solid answers bearable.
  • You don't have to be perfect, and that's good because you're not going to be. Accepting that a certain batting average of failures to successes will help you to see and count both circumstances without beating yourself up or congratulating yourself on what is out of your control. Give up on the illusion of always being in control, and you will acclimate better to the Sea of Doubt.
  • When you’re dying, most individual decisions won't seem that important, so look at all decisions as though you are looking at them from your deathbed to get a more accurate reading on how important this is outside the context of the immediate moment. Performing a post mortem on the decision before it takes place will let you spot some kinds of mistakes that are only visible when viewed from hindsight.
  • Be okay with things having costs. Lots of folks run around like headless chickens because they can’t deal with ever paying a price for things, like nothing is supposed to hurt or be difficult. Your problem is not that you have problems; your problem is that you think there's something wrong with having problems.
flamingsword: Aziraphale, the flaming sword, and Crowley (Default)
Now that you’re doing the work of figuring out what your assumptions are, and they’re becoming more visible, what should we do about them? Well, there are some options! You can look at the context of the assumption and see what else you know about the facts surrounding it, looking for inconsistencies that lead you to suspect that you might not have the whole story. A lot of the time, especially at first, you will have to look up information about your subject on the internet and you will have to do science to your expectations, because your brain will have disregarded information that disagreed with your view (darn you, confirmation bias!). When doing science to things, remember that science is good at giving us facts and enumerating relationships, but that the context of those relationships is sensitive to our previously held biases and assumptions. So it’s vital to take each thing and look at its assumptions and turn each of the assumptions upside down to see if there are unexplained variances that a different perspective on the contents of the science explains.

Alternately, you could look at the disagreement that you had and decide that your view was not enough of a nuanced approach to be the truth (applying Occam’s Razor to humans is a hazard; we are complexodynamic creatures). If you put some thought to questioning your view and know that there’s not enough data available to make a solid judgement call, perhaps you can figure out what the most likely answers are and apply a probability to them. An average distribution curve runs something like answer A= 50-70%; B=10-30%; C= 5-10%; Z= ~2% or less. Why do we think about option Z? Because even if we’ve never seen it happen, if something is likely to happen 2% of the time, and that situation comes up 20 times a year then statistically Z’s number is going to come up every two and a half years, and being completely unprepared is going to make you feel really failsome when it happens. When trying to populate your ratios, be aware that any situation you’ve only seen happen a few times is subject to the Law of Large Numbers, where your values tend to skew back and forth a lot until you build up a large enough statistical base from which to accurately make that judgement. This will make your daily plans and your disaster preparedness a lot simpler.

When you are looking at the possibility space and about to start planning, there is going to be a hurdle to get over. At first, you will want to do nothing. There are going to be some conflicting impulses between doing anything you can think of and being paralyzed for fear of making it worse. But fear is not a plan. Being afraid, of itself, accomplishes nothing, and furthers no plan. Neither does living in the hope that the situation will change on its own, so being able to label these states of inaction as plans and weigh their risk-benefit ratio will help you dismiss them or use them constructively. Figure out the thought space available, the possibilities for the problem, and the risk-benefit assessment for each plan to solve the problem - even though it's hard. It takes a lot of will-power to make yourself stick with doing something like this, so don't be afraid to write things down, leave and come back to it, ask for help, and use all of your creative skills to solve it.

Now there’s a plan in place for making the judgement call, you’ll get faster at making them and won’t have to agonize over them as much. It has the anti-anxiety benefit built into the system, which is helpful, since you don’t have all the energy in the world to wade through fallacies every time you try to do something. Once the assessment phase of the decision making process is not so fraught, you can make plans and decide between them using a risk benefit analysis. Make plans that are sensitive to the conditions of your ABCZ distribution curve. Is there a way to make one plan and it’s backups work for all scenarios? Congratulations, you have achieved a Xanatos Gambit!

"BUT WAIT!!!", you say, "How does this relate to the Sea of Doubt?"

Fair question. Sometimes you have a probability A, and a probability Z, but the rest of your theoretical possibility space is one big ??? and you're not sure what to do about that. How are you supposed to act when you can only account for what seems* like 52% of the possibilities? (*and is realistically even less, since we have to assume we are not omniscient) Well, there are so many types of problems, and so many strategies for solutions that we invented an internet to help deal with them. That we will get into next post.
flamingsword: Aziraphale, the flaming sword, and Crowley (Default)
Life is not a simple thing full of objectively true answers, though we speak of it as though it is. We live in a vast, nebulous uncertainty, which we paw our way through looking for solid certainties to cling to. We try to keep our heads above this metaphorical water of uncertainty so that we can know things and make good decisions, even though there are some problems with this approach. We know that we don't know everything, but we don't like to look too hard at how much we're not sure of in case it causes us to start questioning the solidity of our decisions. How do we know that we righteously punched that guy in the face if we can't be sure he deserved it? Uncertainty makes our motives and actions suspect. It can drive us to ask hard questions of ourselves and not give up until we have working hypotheses we can live with.

When someone questions what we think we have a grip on then we begin to have control issues with what we think are solid facts. We try to make other people stop telling us that this raft we are clinging to is not an island, try to force them to pretend that we are still on dry land. We try to convince ourselves that these rafts made of floating trash are islands, and we punish people for telling us that it looks like trash. The problem is that our expectations are invisible from the inside. We don't realize that our beliefs are beliefs, because from the inside they look like facts. We don't hold ourselves responsible for our beliefs, even though they are our responsibility. The people challenging our beliefs are the only target we can see. They become the enemy.

So what are our choices in these situations?

  • A. We can boss people around with our expectations like they are NPCs, but that's not going to be sustainable now that we aren't living in the Protagonist Delusion and other people matter to us. If we keep trying to do things we know are wrong it will erode our self-respect and eventually we will hate ourselves.

  • B. Find an idol to follow, so that we can subsume our identity in theirs. We will not have to make choices about what to believe, because that choice has been handed off. We can insulate ourselves from the sea of doubt by lashing our rafts together. But now that we know about the biases in our thinking, we're going to start spotting the biases in our idols, and whether we say anything about it or not, we can no longer write off their fallibility. We can feel the waves of uncertainty lapping at our toes.

  • C. We can choose to focus on the damage being done by how wrong other people are. The world will provide an endless parade of other people to be wrong in front of us, and it can be a huge distraction from the need to acknowledge our own uncertainty. Even in a culture that ridicules being wrong, we are more afraid of having no definite answers than of being wrong. The siren call of looking the other way when distraction presents itself is strong. It can lead us into just as much interpersonal trouble as the first two methods, but because this one acknowledges the possibility of our broader cultural wrongness, it can lead activists to some rewarding places in the meantime. Some people never realize that there is a method that encompasses the application of this method and makes it more emotionally sustainable.

  • Z. We can hold ourselves responsible for our expectations.

    How do we begin to figure out what our assumptions and expectations and beliefs are, if they're invisible? Well it's as simple as making a list of everything you've ever disagreed with someone on. (Did I say it was easy? Simple =/= Easy.) Maybe your belief about something was justified ... but it is still a belief, and it still needs to be tested as a belief. We'll do a whole separate post on reality testing since that's the best link I can find.

    You have been taught, all of your life, that you are your thoughts. And if I can prove that your thoughts on something are wrong then I will have killed a part of you. You mourn and seek revenge for this thought because you experience the pain of losing what you have been taught is your self, your identity. But what if there's another way? What if you aren't your thoughts and actions, just the thing behind them that handles how you think your thoughts? What if you are your personality, and not the beliefs and thoughts that fill in the blanks? Then, if I prove wrong something you believe, you can simply update the old belief to the new one, and still experience continuity of self. It will be embarrassing to not have spotted the misinformation, but no longer a devastating attack on your ego. If established as a cultural norm, the roots of our culture of disrespect could be slowly unraveled by challenging our ability to feel insulted or threatened by disagreement. Mental health would be more sustainable for everyone and I urge you to put this on your to-do list.
  • flamingsword: None can take the stars who do not reach. (Take The Stars)
    So I had not realized how many of my skillsets geared into the :probability nexus: :how to behave in situations full of variables that can only be calculated based on facts not in evidence: :deduce when you are working from faulty assumptions: :deal emotionally with never being certain of three quarters of your operating assumptions: paradigm that I have internally labelled the Sea of Doubt. And now that I have a reason to write about it coherently, I'm beginning to get a much bigger picture of how all of these interconnections correlate. The Sea of Doubt is the basis for my rationality, and how I use that rationality to navigate the world without feeling like an awkward jerk who is wrong all the time.

    We "know" a lot of things that are wrong, and from these failsome assumptions comes much of the suffering of our lives. For instance, every young person knows that they are the protagonist of this story they are living in, and they are, as [personal profile] ot_atma says, not even wrong. By the age of twenty five we are expected to get over our "I AM THE PROTAGONIST" delusions and move toward an understanding of "everyone is just trying to do the best they can in variably bad circumstances", but how far people get along this path is highly dependent on personality and disadvantages. It kind of makes me question why we tell kids stories that only have one protagonist; how that's supposed to reflect their journey in life and teach them how to person while filling their head with nonsense?

    We punish people socially for acting like they are the protagonist in their own life story when we have obviously cast them in a supporting role in ourlife. Why aren't they more grateful? Aren't we friends? And it would be easier to be upset if they were not trained to do this by every children's story that says that the Chosen One is special and that the normal rules won't apply to them. Because we all feel different, and our cognitive biases latch onto this evidence for our delusion and any piece of luck we encounter "proves" our merit and reinforces our ability to treat other people like they don't matter to our story. And even stories that are about seemingly moral protagonists do this. I'm looking at you, Harry Potter.

    So part of beginning to look at the Sea of Doubt is looking at how we think we are special and how we think others aren't, and realizing that we have been trained to be delusional about how probability works. That we are no luckier or less lucky than others except by systems of privilege which exist embedded within the minds of the people we interact with. Once we start looking at what biases there are we can start looking at how we are trained to be irrational about them and stop telling ourselves stories to justify how "the world might work that way for other people but we are special". Because the problem with some biases is that they work on you even when you know what they are and that they're working on you. Including the Protagonist delusion.

    If you're going to dig that one out of your head, set yourself a goal of about two years if you are new to rewiring your headspace. That's at least somewhat realistic? Because you will find yourself reverting back to your old neural pathways in times of stress, and it will get you pissed at yourself for being new at something, which you can't help. That's no way to make progress. And get ready for the host of terrible things that making your biases visible does to how you think of yourself and the people around you. Because once you can't hide behind thinking that you are special? You may have a whole lot of problematic behaviors that you probably weren't aware of which you could ignore because the people to whom you were doing them mattered less.

    Becoming a better person is hella awkward.


    flamingsword: Aziraphale, the flaming sword, and Crowley (Default)

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