Friday, April 13, 2018

We live in a wonderland

February column for AZIndiaTimes.


We live in a wonderland

Since many years, I’ve been seeking a personal Grand Unified Theory- one final set of learnings and tips I can use to successfully navigate all future events. Through every book I picked up, every film I saw, every interesting conversation I had, I was sifting through the chaff to find the ultimate swiss army knife that’d help me deal with reality. One Mental Map that is perfect for all quests. I’ve now decided to give up the pursuit not because of a sudden realization but because it’s slowly dawning on me that that map might not exist. The reason I’ve sought the One Epiphany is because that is the most prevalent narrative technique I’ve been exposed to in stories, movies, spiritual discourses and essays.

Every piece of knowledge we have, physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, is something we’ve gathered to better understand the nature of reality. We have thousands, if not millions, of these little, practically useful facts that we’ve gleaned from our experiences of dealing with both internal and external worlds. From personal experience, I know that what happens inside us is as much a mystery as what happens outside. The self, then, is the thin film that separates these two environments and acts as the conductor for flow of information and everything else.

Everything we know or think we know, has been gleaned from the environment, culture, society, family, tradition, religion, experimentation, genetic encoding, personal experience etc. The underlying purpose of all this information is to enable us to better hustle with reality. I don’t know the Why of it yet, though. Nevertheless, I’m willing to stake, based on the collage of results of the numerous models I’ve built in my head, that we consume information so that we can better understand new and foreign phenomena and come out of it as stronger, or atleast unscathed, beings. However, these collected nuggets of information are too overwhelming for us to process before every decision we make. So we create theories and generalize our learnings. Not only does this make storage and retrieval easier but it also helps us identify patterns in new situations. I don’t know if any of this has scientific standing but these images act as metaphors for me to understand my motivations and actions better.

“Your mind is the society’s garbage bin.” -Sadhguru

So, why do we need these Mental Models (which are a set of, usually, internally consistent thoughts)? Because to survive in this world, we need to be intelligent. A being is called intelligent when it is able to learn and create more and more sophisticated models and be able to apply them to newer and stranger problems, as fast as possible, so that it can survive and thrive. Since its too resource consuming to go through every possible thought before performing an action, we agree to make some assumptions as axioms (self-evident truths) to be able to function.

There is an hierarchy to Mental Models . Some of them form the Operating System of the mind. For whatever reason, we’ve accepted those thoughts as dictums. They are non-negotiable and sacred. Stuff like “Live and Let Live” or “Do your Karma without worrying about the consequences” or “Suffering is a redemptive process” or “Everything is fair in love and war” or even “I will always support India in a Cricket match”. The reason they take the shape of proverbs is because that’s how these lessons pass so effectively from generation to generation. Some of these are not always consistent with each other but we have made peace with it. These are our core beliefs. We do not like it when they are challenged because everything we do, the way we see the world, the goals we’ve chosen to pursue are decided by these presuppositions. Everything we do and say betrays something about these core beliefs. Despite that, we never pause to question the nature of our deepest beliefs, the lenses we wear that portray the world in a certain way.

Then there are App Level models which we create to navigate more specific scenarios like dealing with an unpredictable boss or choosing a web framework. We are not so deeply attached to them so we use them like they ought to be used, with discretion and as per need. Between these two layers, there are the Platform Level models which are generic enough to fuel multiple app level models.

Since the world has gotten extremely complex since the last few hundred generations, we’ve had to encode more and more information in cultural and social structures to accelerate the learning, and thereby successful functioning, of our offspring. Our beliefs, essentially, are hacks we’ve created so as not to spend too much energy analysing every situation. Like they say, do not reinvent the wheel.

“Scientists try to eliminate their false theories, they try to let them die in their stead. The believer—whether animal or man—perishes with his false beliefs” -Karl Popper

What it means is that even our most deepest beliefs are up for discussion and readjustment. Nothing is sacred. One should have healthy skepticism towards “truths”. But hang on, isn’t this belief in skepticism then my core belief? Why should I trust it completely then? Well, I shouldn’t. Some scholars argue that our perception of reality is defined by the language of our thought. How can you stand on any firm ground if its turtles all the way down. This is when paradoxes and Zen koans come in handy. They help us question the basis of our most basic assumptions. Thoughts that bump into the limits of our understanding.

“Knock on the sky and listen to the sound” -Zen Proverb

All that I’ve described so far is also just one mental model. Maybe it’ll survive intact, or will have to be tweaked innumerable times or will have to be shed away completely; Only future will tell. The world is too varied, complex, wonderful and strange. My only hope is that these learnings will sink deeper into my being and help me become a better human. Whatever the hell that means now.

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