Patterns and truth

But in Ender’s mind, madness. Thousands of competing contradictory impossible visions that make no sense at all because they can’t all fit together but they do fit together, he makes them fit together, this way today, that way tomorrow, as they’re needed. As if he can make a new idea-machine inside his head for every new problem he faces. As if he conceives of a new universe to live in, every hour a new one, often hopelessly wrong and he ends up making mistakes and bad judgments, but sometimes so perfectly right that it opens new things up like a miracle and I look through his eyes and see the world his new way and it changes everything. Madness, and then illumination. (Xenocide, p. 439)

My worldview tends to be flexible in a lot of ways. I can often see both sides of an issue, and string ideas together as necessary to support each side. I see the world of ideas almost as a game, where the different ideas are game pieces and I can put them together in different combinations to serve my purposes at any given point in time. Occasionally, I find a pattern of ideas that I find useful, where things just click into place (“Madness, and then illumination”). I tend to keep those patterns around by recording them here in my blog, like the idea of cognitive subroutines. But the churning never stops.

I had a couple experiences in class earlier this week where this came in handy. In one class, we were having small group discussions, and towards the end, we were trying to summarize the group’s opinions about our reading, and I was able to string the discussion ideas together into a coherent pattern to present to the class on behalf of the group. In my other class, we had to do a group presentation and I ended up answering the questions at the end, because I quickly saw ways to reassemble our group ideas into a new pattern that tangentially related to the question.

One question that often comes up when I describe things in this way is where truth fits into all of this. In other words, is it a good thing that I have an affiinity for what would be called spin in politics? Or does it demonstrate that I have no morals, no regard for the truth, and will do whatever is expedient for me?

Is there such a thing as the Truth? I’m not sure there is. So much of what we observe is influenced by our previous experiences that I don’t think it’s possible for anybody to have a truly objective point of view. Books like Latour’s Politics of Nature and Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action and Wilson’s Quantum Psychology describe the context-dependent nature of thought, and lectures like Hacking the Mind remind us how our brains can be fooled in all sorts of ways. I could throw around terms like “social construction of facts”, but the basic idea is that “truth” is a really tricky concept and depends a lot on what other people think. Truth evolves; the truth about the Earth went from being the center of the universe, to circling the sun, to being an insignificant mote. For there to be universal undisputed Truth, there would have to be an omniscient impartial observer to decide on what Truth is. God serves that purpose for a lot of people, I suppose, but since He is not available to me to communicate the Truth in any situation, I think it’s equivalent to there being no such observer.

So let’s say that playing games with ideas loses us the concept of absolute Truth. What do we gain, if anything? I would argue that we gain better communication. If we insist on the concept of Truth, then if somebody disagrees with us, it is because they are wrong. At best, they may be misinterpreting the Truth. This immediately sets up the conversation as being confrontational and a zero-sum game, where if one person is right, the other person is wrong. If we instead see the conversation as an opportunity for both sides to learn and to come to a mutual agreement, the conversation is much more productive.

To be an effective communicator, you have to be able to put things in terms that your listener will understand. Whether you want to call it sales or framing or storytelling, putting the ideas together into the right pattern is what lets us get our point across to our listener. This is important because better communication is what connects us and lets us create bigger achievements than any of us could achieve on our own. Being able to bridge the gap between people’s minds is at the root of a lot of problems I see around me, from management screwups to politics to discrimination.

And sometimes that communication can’t happen when people are concerned with the Truth. For instance, the difference between good storytellers and bad ones is that the bad ones don’t know which details to leave out. They see the story as a sequence of events, and in an attempt to be completely truthful, they include every element. The good storytellers know their audience and tailor their story appropriately, including details that will connect to the audience, and leaving out ones that won’t. Are they less truthful? Perhaps. But I think the connection to the audience matters more.

A similar example is the Dilbert-ian engineer who always talks in jargon and can’t help giving every last bit of detail about what they’re working on. They are holding to the idea that more information is always better, because Truth is what matters. But because they can’t communicate with the rest of their company, they end up being useless and ineffective, complaining about how their project was screwed up by “politics” (and, yes, I used to be one such engineer). One has to ask whether it’s more important to be “truthful” and make sure every detail is technically correct in one’s explanation, or to use a simplified explanation that isn’t perfectly accurate but gets the idea across so that other people in the company can use it.

I really like that quote at the top of the post, from the third book of the Ender series. It describes my mind in a lot of ways. One of the reasons I continue to blog is that it lets me take a snapshot of the “idea-machine”s going through my brain so that I can later refer to them and/or mock them if need be. I try to keep my mind flexible, to continue to try new patterns. I’m not always as successful at it as I would like, but it’s a good goal because it will make me a more effective communicator, and I think that’s the key.

17 thoughts on “Patterns and truth

  1. Interesting post!

    I think this all makes perfect sense if you think about the fact that we all carry around a mental model of the universe in our heads. You can talk about truth in the logical sense of whether something is consistent with the axioms and transformational rules of some reasoning system (“2+2=4” is true in that sense), but more often when we talk about “truth” we’re talking about how consistent a statement is with our mental model of the world. Which means there are a bunch of different ways in which the statement can be inconsistent.

    I can’t find the reference, but I remember from my Linguistics class that there’s a Native American (I think) language that has obligatory case markers about truth. In other words, you cannot form a grammatical declarative sentence in this language without giving some indication of why you believe it to be true: it’s something you personally observed, something you heard about second-hand or third-hand, something everybody knows, something that might be true, something you inferred, and so on. “Truth” is a really tricky concept once you start examining it.

  2. “Truth evolves; the truth about the Earth went from being the center of the universe, to circling the sun, to being an insignificant mote. For there to be universal undisputed Truth, there would have to be an omniscient impartial observer to decide on what Truth is.”

    Now, I can understand you saying that these different understandings of the Earth’s position were evolving *social* truths, but are you saying that the physical truth of the Earth’s revolution around the sun simply did not exist until it was observed? My intuition is that many physical facts are true even if no one ever observes them or proves them.

    I have heard people say that a fact-bending memoir is “narratively true” or that a myth or story can be true without being factual. But I consider a person’s willingness to present as fact something that he does not believe to be true a useful indicator of his integrity. If he lies about the small things, why would he not lie to me about larger things? Spinning and misleading and tricking and defrauding are too closely related for my comfort.

  3. Beemer, thanks for the reference. It reminds me of E-Prime, which I read about in the Quantum Psychology book. E-Prime is defined as English without the word “is” in all of its forms, which forces one to use other constructions similar to the ones you describe to explain why we think an object possesses the characteristics that we are prescribing to it. It’s really hard to use – I couldn’t even make it through this paragraph without lapsing.

    Sumana, this may be an epistemological distinction. One of Latour’s points is that we have a situation where certain prophets (aka scientists), go and consult the oracles (aka the truth) via their experiments, and interpret the results. Because of all the intermediaries, even if there were an existing unchanging eternal Truth, we can’t access it directly, and therefore it functionally does not exist. If a tree falls in the forest, and all that.

    It sounds a little bit crazy because it removes the cultural assumption of the existence of absolute Truth, but I find that assumption introduces several logical inconsistencies, and we may be functionally better off without it. Otherwise, when two people have a dispuate, they will both be appealing to the Truth, which they feel to be absolute but are interpreting differently because of their different intermediaries, rather than acknowledging the different interpretations directly and working from there.

  4. I agree that it’s hard to define Truth; most any idea or statement can be seen as deficient or less than fully rigorous in its details. By contrast, it’s easy to find things that are clearly false; Sumana gives a nice example above.

    This sounds like the classic problem: it only takes one counterexample to prove a theory false, while no amount of supporting data can be as 100% persuasive. There’s a name for this, I think, but it’s past my bedtime.

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