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« Reading William Gibson: Media | Main | Bat Boy Disappears from Headlines, and a Nation Mourns »

Sunday, August 05, 2007


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Reason is a wonderful thing, but reason as a complete system unto itself is an illusion. Or at least I think so.

Our knowledge of the universe is incomplete, as is our knowledge of ourselves, and perfecting reason isn't likely to change that.

But if reason steers us toward some profitable leaping-off points, is that so unreasonable? As a person who makes a living, more or less, off of creative acts, I've developed a great respect for the serendipitous. For these "nudges," as you call them. Cognitive leaps, emotional intelligence, instinct, intuition, luck. God.

Call it what you will.


Well, I had a really long, and incredibly insightful comment that disappeared. In keeping with my belief that the Universe/God is always looking out for me, I shall assume that this one will be even better.

I'd bore you with all the examples of things that just came our way, but here is one of my favorites. In 2001, Dan and I were getting kinda desperate in our house search because everything on the peninsula of Charleston was outrageously expensive. We looked at EVERYTHING, even houses that would have taken thousands of $$$ and months of work to make suitable. Our agent was advising us to rethink our ideal.

Finally, we put a bid in on a condo, which we promptly lost in a way that suggested a bias toward another bidder, one without kids. It was disheartening, but we decided to believe that something better was waiting for us. A few weeks later, it showed up. Our current house popped on the market. Timing was perfect, price was incredible, its condition was nearly perfect and it had everything we'd wanted: porch, backyard, brick construction. It was far better for us than the smaller condo with its regime fees and not-as-practical floor plan.

I took from that the lesson that something better always comes along. Call it whatever you like: Law of Attraction, destiny, divine intervention or just happy coincidence.

And why not? Applied properly, it can reduce stress; prevent wrinkles and heart attacks, improve your quality of life and most assuredly make you a more pleasant person to be around.

I've never believed that God was particularly interested in suffering. In fact, I think it pisses God off when all we think about is misery, lack and pain. It's like a kid getting a roomful of presents for Christmas, but all he can talk about is what he didn't get.

Granted, there are some caveats: You are just as special as everyone else. Sometimes you are wrong about what you think will make you happy. True happiness cannot come at the expense of others.

But to go through life thinking the Universe is continually working to send you good stuff? It's more than "pretty" to think so.


When something serendipitous happens, it is pretty to think that the universe is nudging you in some direction. But here is the problem: what exactly is the universe saying when bad things happen?

I heard an interview with the husband of a victim of the bridge collapse in Minnesota. Construction on the bridge normally forced her to take a different route home. But traffic was light that day, and she decided to take the route over the bridge. What must her husband think when someone says it was a miracle that traffic was light and slow because of construction? If it was a miracle, then why did anyone die? Why did the bridge collapse at all? Why didn't the span remain in place as the supports fell? Now that would be a miracle.

Yes, it is pretty to think the universe is guiding you, until you consider the flip side. How ugly to think the universe is so malevolent it saves some people while letting others suffer and die; that it traps six miners in a collapse in Utah; that it allows hundreds of thousands of people to die in Darfur because they are black and Christian. It seems much more palatable to think the universe is random and I'm just lucky.


And to continue with my jaded and cynical posts, I have to respond to Daniel.

Our knowledge of the universe is incomplete, as is our knowledge of ourselves, and perfecting reason isn't likely to change that.

The alternative to reason is to make things up. And the problem with making things up is that inevitably someone will take their beliefs so seriously they believe they have to kill you because your beliefs are different.

So, give me reason as "a complete system unto itself". It seems like a much better alternative.

The alternative to reason is to make things up.
No, that's a false dichotomy.
So, give me reason as "a complete system unto itself".
Maps of Bounded Rationality

Geez, Tim, why don't you make me WORK a little. Thanks for the link. I'm going to read the whole of it later. After more coffee.

P.S. Count me in the $1 crowd!


Right. And let me clarify: I don't think we're talking about an either-or choice. Reason should form the basis for all we do, if only because it allows us to understand each other when we work in collaboration. Reason is necessary for civilization, because it's the language of civilization.

The value of intuition, nudges, etc., comes on the extremes -- typically when it comes to predictive tasks involving lots of similar options. And while individual intuitive choices are not themselves derived from reason, the use of extra-rational cues is, I think, entirely reasonable in certain circumstances.

For instance: If you accept the idea that observation over time trains a person to become more perceptive in a particular field, then the act of observation is qualitatively different for the experienced observer than for the novice. If an experienced observer is absorbing subtle cues from the subject and processing them in a number of "channels," how are these bits of knowledge experienced? One answer: the observer has "a gut feeling."

A good example is a baseball scout. Baseball provides all sorts of statistics and "player measureables," but if the task is predicting which player, out of hundreds of similar prospects, is likely to produce better in the major leagues, mere statistical analysis is going to perform poorly (because so many players have such similar statistics, acquired from so many different sets of conditions -- otherwise known as "leagues").

An experienced, trained baseball scout collects and analyzes data, observes the mechanics of a player's game, etc. But in the end, he's asked to render a judgment on the future. If you accept as valid only those bits of information that can be placed on a spread sheet, then you're not getting the totality of the scout's judgment. His "gut feeling" isn't merely an emotion: it's an extra-rationally processed understanding of everything he has observed about the players he is studying.

And we can improve those "gut feelings" if we become aware of them. For instance, most of us have all sorts of biases that influence our intuition. Becoming aware of those tendencies (self-scouting) can help us account for them. I think it's possible to train our intuition.

That's part of what I've been trying to do with my football predictions. Sports makes a good testbed for prediction, because you can quantify the results.


I'm fully with Dan on this one. Given perfect information and infinite time, reason rules. Reason is a common language for social organization (logos as civic rhetoric), among others.

But our senses aren't perfect. We aren't omniscient. We often choose, or are forced, to decide/predict before we have "all the facts."

But that's why I think the joke's on those that find humor in the term truthiness.



I took me a long time and much coffee to get through that. I first came across Kahneman 3 years ago when trying to deepen my understanding of automatic thinking. I've found it applicable in many areas.

I just asked my wife and oldest the bat-and-ball question. They're both in the $1 crowd, too.

older kid

What would the Mickey Mouse Buddah say?


OK, that's a mind-blowingly obscure reference.


buddha goes up to a weiner stand and says "make me one with everything"



Actually, I think it's a reference to something that might have been called "Visions of The Mickey Mouse Buddha," which I don't think was ever published. Anywhere. And about which I had completely forgotten.


As the only one of us who is evidently not doing some illegal substance, I must ask: WHAT are you talking about? If it wasn't published, how do you know about it? Sheesh . . . a little clarity, please.

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