Plato’s Cave, Flatlanders, and Us

The Allegory of the Cave was an allegorical scenario and dialog described by Plato in his work “The Republic.”  In it, a number of prisoners occupy a cave and are forced to only look in the direction of a wall.  Behind them is a huge fire.  Between the prisoners and the fire, people walk along a walkway, their shadows being cast upon the wall and echoes of the sounds of their footsteps reflecting off the wall.  Given that the prisoners have been in that position for their entire lives, this is their entire reality.  They have built a reality around the shadows and sounds emanating from the wall.  Their “futurists” are the ones who can best predict the next shadow.  Plato then imagines what might happen if a prisoner were released and free to discover the truth about the world; what created the shadows, and what lies beyond the cave.  If he attempted to explain the truth behind the “shadow reality” to his former fellow prisoners, he would likely be shunned as they would fear and ridicule his outlandish perspective.

platoscave

In 1884, Edwin Abbott Abbott wrote a novella called “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” in which the characters lived in a two-dimensional world.  Originally intended to be a social satire about Victorian culture, it is now often referenced by scientists and mathematicians who imagine the possibilities of higher dimensions.  In Flatland, the Flatlanders can’t conceive of a reality with three dimensions.  When a sphere visits their world, all they can perceive is a 2D slice of the sphere and so they remain unconvinced that higher dimensions could exist.  Interestingly, even the sphere denies the possibility of spatial dimensions higher than three, despite his conviction in his argument with the flatlanders that there is a spatial dimension higher than their two.  It seems that everyone is stuck in their physical reality, with little imagination nor open-mindedness to the possibilities of a greater reality.

Flatlanders

We are amused as we read these stories.  But are we any different?  Have we become any more enlightened as to other possibilities since Plato’s time?  In some contexts, perhaps.  Believers in some new age philosophies, followers of some ancient eastern or shamanic traditions, certain practitioners of the use of entheogenic plants, and even fundamentalists in western monotheistic religions will acknowledge that our reality is but a subset of a much greater one.  But that is the spiritual side of the great divide.  From a scientific perspective, there are very few who appear to be willing to think outside the physical reality box.

Physicist Thomas Campbell, in his “My Big TOE”, and Steven Kaufman, in his “Unified Reality Theory” have developed comprehensive theories based on experience and rigorous logic which demonstrate that our physical experience is but a tiny subset of a much larger and more complex reality.  But how many scientists and rational thinkers buy into the idea?  Not many.  They are too busy living in Flatland.  Or Plato’s Cave.

Reality_Systems

The Power of Intuition in the Age of Uncertainty

Have you ever considered why it is that you decide some of the things that you do?

Like how to divide your time across the multiple projects that you have at work, when to discipline your kids, what to do on vacation, who to marry, what college to attend, which car to buy?

The ridiculously slow way to figure these things out is to do an exhaustive analysis on all of the options, potential outcomes and probabilities.  This can be extremely difficult when the parameters of the analysis are constantly changing, as is often the case.  Such analysis is making use of your conscious mind.

The other option is to use your subconscious mind and make a quick intuitive decision.

We who have been educated in the West, and especially those of us who received our training in engineering or the sciences, are conditioned to believe that “analysis” represents rigorous logical scientific thinking and “intuition” represents new age claptrap or occasional maternal wisdom.  Analysis good, intuition silly.

This view is quite inaccurate.

According to Gary Klein, ex-Marine, psychologist, and author of the book “The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work,” 90% of the critical decisions that we make are made by intuition in any case.  Intuition can actually be a far more accurate and certainly faster way to make an important decision.  Here’s why…

Consider the mind to be composed of two parts – conscious and subconscious.  Admittedly, this division may be somewhat arbitrary, but it is also realistic.

The conscious mind is that part of the mind that deals with your current awareness (sensations, perceptions, memories, feelings, fantasies, etc.)  Research shows that the information processing rate of the conscious mind is actually very low.  Tor Nørretranders, author of “The User Illusion”, estimates the rate at only 16 bits per second.  Dr. Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia estimates the conscious mind’s processing capacity to be little higher at 40 bits per second.  In terms of the number of items that can be retained at one time by the conscious mind, estimates vary from 4 – 7, with the lower number being reported in a 2008 study by the National Academy of Sciences.

Contrast that with the subconscious mind, which is responsible for all sorts of things: autonomous functions, subliminal perceptions (all of that data streaming in to your five sensory interfaces that you barely notice), implicit thought, implicit learning, automatic skills, association, implicit memory, and automatic processing.  Much of this can be combined into what we consider “intuition.”  Estimates for the information processing capacity and storage capacity of the subconscious mind vary widely, but they are all orders of magnitude larger than their conscious counterparts.  Dr. Bruce Lipton, in “The Biology of Belief,” notes that the processing rate is at least 20 Mbits/sec and maybe as high as 400 Gbits/sec.  Estimates for storage capacity is as high as 2.5 petabytes, or 2,500,000,000,000,000.

Isn’t it interesting that the rigorous analysis that we are so proud of is effectively done on a processing system that is excruciatingly slow and has little memory capacity?

Whereas, intuition is effectively done on a processing system that is blazingly fast and contains an unimaginable amount of data. (Note: as an aside, I might mention that there is actually significant evidence that the subconscious mind connects with powerful data and processing elements outside of the brain, which only serves to underscore the message of this post)

Kind of gives you a little more respect for intuition, doesn’t it?

In fact, that’s what intuition is – the same analysis that you might consider doing consciously, but doing it instead with access to far more data, such as your entire wealth of experience, and the entire set of knowledge to which you have ever been exposed.

Sounds great, right?  It might be a skill that could be very useful to hone, if possible.

But the importance of intuition only grows exponentially as time goes on.  Here’s why…

Eddie Obeng is the Professor at the School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, HenleyBusinessSchool, in the UK.  He gave a TED talk which nicely captured the essence of our times, in terms of information overload.  The following chart from that talk demonstrates what we all know and feel is happening to us:

Image

The horizontal axis is time, with “now” being all the way to the right.  The vertical axis depicts information rate.

The green curve represents the rate at which we humans can absorb information, aka “learn.”  It doesn’t change much over time, because our biology stays pretty much the same.

The red curve represents the rate at which information is coming at us.

Clearly, there was a time in the past, where we had the luxury of being able to take the necessary time to absorb all of the information necessary to understand the task, or project at hand.  If you are over 40, you probably remember working in such an environment.  At some point, however, the incoming data rate exceeded our capacity to absorb it.  TV news with two or three rolling tickers, tabloids, zillions of web sites to scan, Facebook posts, tweets, texts, blogs, social networks, information repositories, big data, etc.  For some of us, it happened a while ago, for others; more recently.  I’m sure there are still some folks who live  simpler lives on farms in rural areas that haven’t passed the threshold yet.  But they aren’t reading this blog.  As for the rest of us…

It is easy to see that as time goes on, the ratio of unprocessed incoming information to human learning capacity grows exponentially.  What this means is that there is increasingly more uncertainty in our world, because we just don’t have the ability to absorb the information needed to be “certain”, like we used to.  Some call it “The Age of Uncertainty.”  Some refer to the need to be “comfortable with ambiguity.”

This is a true paradigm shift.  A “megatrend.”   It demands entirely new ways of doing business, of structuring companies, of planning, of living.  In my “day job”, I help companies come to terms with these changes by implementing agile and lean processes, structures, and frameworks in order for them to be more adaptable to the constantly changing environment.  But this affects all of us, not just companies.  How do we cope?

One part to the answer is to embrace intuition.  We don’t have time to use the limited conscious mind apparatus to do rigorous analysis to solve our problems anymore.  As time goes on, that method becomes less and less effective.  But perhaps we can make better use of that powerful subconscious mind apparatus by paying more attention to our intuition.  It seems to be what some of our most successful scientists, entrepreneurs, and financial wizards are doing:

George Soros said: “My [trading] decisions are really made using a combination of theory and instinct. If you like, you may call it intuition.”

Albert Einstein said: “The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it intuition or what you will, and the solution comes to you, and you don’t know how or why.”  He also said: “The only real valuable thing is intuition.”

Steve Jobs said: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

So how do the rest of us start paying more attention to our intuition?  Here are some ideas:

  • Have positive intent and an open mind
  • Go with first thing that comes to mind
  • Notice impressions, connections, coincidences (a journal or buddy may help)
  • Put yourself in situations where you gain more experience about the desired subject(s)
  • 2-column exercises
  • Meditate / develop point-focus
  • Visualize success
  • Follow your path

I am doing much of this and finding it very valuable.

Complexity from Simplicity – More Support for a Digital Reality

Simple rules can generate complex patterns or behavior.

For example, consider the following simple rules that, when programmed into a computer, can result in beautiful complex patterns akin to a flock of birds:

1. Steer to avoid crowding local flockmates (separation)
2. Steer towards the average heading of local flockmates (alignment)
3. Steer to move toward the average position (center of mass) of local flockmates (cohesion)

The pseudocode here demonstrates the simplicity of the algorithm.  The following YouTube video is a demonstration of “Boids”, a flocking behavior simulator developed by Craig Reynolds:

Or consider fractals.  The popular Mandelbrot set can be generated with some simple rules, as demonstrated here in 13 lines of pseudocode, resulting in beautiful pictures like this:

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a4/Mandel_zoom_11_satellite_double_spiral.jpg/800px-Mandel_zoom_11_satellite_double_spiral.jpg

Fractals can be used to generate artificial terrain for video games and computer art, such as this 3D mountain terrain generated by the software Terragen:

Terragen-generated mountain terrain

Conways Game of Life uses the idea of cellular automata to generate little 2D pixelated creatures that move, spawn, die, and generally exhibit crude lifelike behavior with 2 simple rules:

1. An alive cell with less than 2 or more than 4 neighbors dies.
2. A dead cell with 3 neighbors turns alive.

Depending on the starting conditions, there may be any number of recognizable resulting simulated organisms; some simple, such as gliders, pulsars, blinkers, glider guns, wickstretchers, and some complex such as puffer trains, rakes, space ship guns, cordon ships, and even objects that appear to travel faster than the maximum propagation speed of the game should allow:

Cellular automata can be extended to 3D space.  The following video demonstrates a 3D “Amoeba” that looks eerily like a real blob of living protoplasm:

What is the point of all this?

Just that you can apply some of these ideas to the question of whether or not reality is continuous or digital (and thus based on bits and rules).  And end up with an interested result.

Consider a hierarchy of complexity levels…

Imagine that each layer is 10 times “zoomed out” from the layer below.  If the root simplicity is at the bottom layer, one might ask how many layers up you have to go before the patterns appear to be natural, as opposed to artificial? [Note: As an aside, we are confusing ideas like natural and artificial.  Is there really a difference?]

The following image is an artificial computer-generated fractal image created by Softology’s “Visions of Chaos” software from a base set of simple rules, yet zoomed out from it’s base level by, perhaps, six orders of magnitude:

softology-hybrid-mandelbulb

In contrast, the following image is an electron microscope-generate image of a real HPV virus:

b-cell-buds-virus_c2005AECO

So, clearly, at six orders of magnitude out from a fundamental rule set, we start to lose the ability to discern “natural” from “artificial.”  Eight orders of magnitude should be sufficient to make natural indistinguishable from artificial.

And yet, our everyday sensory experience is about 36 orders of magnitude above the quantum level.

The deepest level that our instruments can currently image is about 7 levels (10,000,000x magnification) below reality.  This means that if our reality is based on bits and simple rules like those described above, those rules may be operating 15 or more levels below everyday reality.  Given that the quantum level is 36 levels down, we have at least 21 orders of magnitude to play with.  In fact, it may very well be possible that the true granularity of reality is below the quantum level.

In any case, it should be clear to see that we are not even closed to being equipped to visually discern the difference between living in a continuous world or a digital one consisting of bits and rules.