Friday, June 27, 2014

Thinking for yourself

Everyone says you should "think for yourself". It's become an applause light. Everyone knows you should "think for yourself". And yet everyone knows that the vast majority of people are sheeple that don't "think for themselves". Yeah, part of the explanation is the tired old "motivated cognition" thing - who really wants to admit "No one thinks for themselves and I don't either!"? But I think there's actually more to this one. I think people really don't get it.
There's a very particular look people get when they're about to make a profound realization. You can see the curiosity. You can see the attention focused inwards as the face goes blank. Not taking in or spitting out anything of interest. You can see the testing new and never before tested beliefs in the twitching facial expressions. You can mirror the look and get a feel for what they're going through. If you've spent some time giving people realizations, it's very recognizable. I like to call this "actually thinking", but people never understand when I do. People don't seem to have a name for it.

Checking the "Facts"

So what does "think for yourself" mean? At one extreme you have completely gullible idiots (or somnambulist hypnotic subjects) that literally do not question anything they're told. That's pretty obvious, and most people aren't that bad. Yet people do form sheeple-like herds.
When most people hear a statement, they do some degree of fact checking against their existing cached beliefs. This feels like "thinking". We're not just blindly accepting stuff, but actually fact checking it. Hence the common "I think for myself!". The problem is that what we're checking it against isn't fact, but just what we've come to accept and believe - mostly from hearing other people tell them things in the past. So yeah. We check one person's beliefs against other people's beliefs - all by ourselves. Pretty special, huh? But when we see others do the same thing, we don't grant them the "thinks for themselves" status - since it just looks like they checked to make sure it agreed with their prejudices.

Of course, from the inside, it feels like it is "checking if its true". And I think it's right to not call it "thinking for yourself". It usually doesn't result in novel ideas (unless, of course, you've already managed to acquire a novel set of models). It doesn't mean you're not falling prey to motivated cognition. You can hear about the latest political controversy "think for yourself" about how well it matches your preconceived political ideas, and then coincidentally come to the same conclusion as everyone else in your party (because your party is the right one full of independent thinkers, of course!). And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Some groups of people really are right more often, and you really do have to rely on your heuristics the vast majority of the time. However, it's still not really the same thing as "thinking for yourself".
If you're going to solve something that doesn't look immediately tractable, you're going to have to do more than that.

Staring into the Void

When you first query your inner Google, you get a salient result or two. You pick one and check whether it seems to pass a very basic check out routine. If it does, you go with that. If it fails, you pick the next most salient. If that fails... well, who really looks past the first page of search results anyway? People give up. Instead of "next page", you see "I dunno". And it looks like it's just another search result. And it always passes the check, because of conflation between "I don't have the answer in my awareness at the moment" - which is trivially true - and "I cannot figure it out" - which is often false, but the important part for determining whether or not to spend more time searching. So you reach "dunno", fact check, and "yep, there really aren't any higher ranking search options" - and quit. Ahh, that's better. You can't blame me, I really don't know!
But you can search further. If you keep asking the question, you'll get a lot of repeated first and second answers, and a lot of "I don't knows", but if you deflate them all with acknowledgement, then you're left with empty. A blank page. And so you start to stare into the void. Your attention scanning the landscape, trying to lower your threshold of activation - so that even weakly excited concepts can come to awareness. Scraping the bottom of the barrel now. And sometimes you'll get more. Often you will. Sometimes you won't.
But that process of staring off into the void - coming up with the non-obvious connections - the novel ideas... that's where all the variance comes from. The ideas that haven't already been thought of. In an important sense, this is the "thinking for yourself" that everyone advocates but no one knows. Coming up with new connections that were never handed to you on a silver platter.
We prefer to pretend we know everything. It's a comforting lie - especially for us analytical control freaks. I mean, we'll pay lip service to the fact that "I don't know!" by cementing in that "I don't can't know!" piece into our label maps. But we avoid these gaps. It acts like "this piece intentionally left blank". It's only when you pull out the semantic stop signs that Vtot is less than lambda, and it's only then that you can actually condition new responses in yourself.

People don't really like this place of uncertainty. When it's about something important, people really don't like this place. Like, really really don't. You know the "definition of insanity"? You know how otherwise sane(ish) people actually do repeat the same mistakes over and over again... as if they expect a new result? At least it's something they understand. When you have a seamless map, it looks like your loss is constrained. Even if it's high, you can learn to deal with it. When there's that hole - that empty blackness... who knows what's in there.

And that's a damn shame. It's a shame because so much cool stuff comes from there. But it's more than just that. It's not that it's an inherently uncomfortable place to be. It's not. It's just that you have to face your fears in order to get there. Once you're there it can be quite serene.


  1. Take a look at the ShowerThoughts subreddit (not including a link because of the spam filter). If I got you right, that place is 100% people thinking for themselves. That's even how I independently described it to myself when I saw it, "hm, this place is full of people that are actually thinking". Maybe you could even use it to explain this state to people.

  2. Huh. You're totally right. Thanks.