How we construct new realities? #6

Posted on October 12, 2011

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We’ve discussed the basketfull of models Peter has collected and used to construct his realities over his first 2o years, including his current stint in the navy. But a basketfull is disorganized – we need some way – a meta-model – the holds them together, that determines which models boss other models leading to a sense of order, rather than creating a free-for-all of realities.

Karl Popper - Nested Hierarchy

Among others Karl Popper comes to the rescue with his meta-model, a hierarchy of models operating with plastic controls. The general idea is this: experience in the form of light and sound waves cycle through  the system – the mind-brain – until they meet a model – a neural net work – that constructs an acceptable reality out of the neural noise.  An acceptable reality is one that ‘fits’  or fires familiar in-place nets (models ). For instance trigger the memory of a familar face stored in long term memory. But this recognition system is fallible – it makes mistakes particularily in noisy situations where you only get  glimpes, or when travelling where we tend to look for familiar faces. Inputs that don’t fit or fail to trigger familiar models typically fade away, unless they persist and trigger damage control models (fight or flight triggered by scary or hated memories or images  from your past).

Notice how booze, drugs, fatigue and stress can temporarily disable the hierarchy, how low priority or previously rejected realities become acceptable. For instance meta-models like ethical or moral constraints, or self-image models are disabled or sidelined allowing deviant thinking, feeling and acting to take over.  Since such meta-models – higher levels of consciousness – are typically acquired after the more primitive evolutionary models – they are the first to be displaced by booze, drugs, fatigue, stress, etc.

We proposed that meta-models help integrate or organize other models. Academic examples include Hawking’s ‘model dependent realism’, Herb Simon’s ‘bounded rationality’, Popper’s “hierarchy of plastic controls”, Campbell and Quine’s “doubt/trust ratio”. Cultural meta-models include various belief systems: religious, political, social, entertainment (e.g., national sports). These meta-models provide convenient cognitive simplifications to help us organize a buzzing confusion of models. For instance in academic settings we have the physical and social science meta-models, Peter started out on the physical science side (engineering) but found that the english literature course was one of his favorites, whereas most engineer students didn’t like it. So Peter didn’t fit into the physical science meta-model as well as typical engineering students. So while meta-models serve as mind-sized simplifications – easy to remember – they focus on similarities and ignore differences. So too does the meta model Christian, and within it Protestant and Catholic, as does the meta model Republican and within it social conservative, economic conservative, etc.

So whenever a meta-model includes many items, things or people who differ markedly – as for instance Christians do, as Jews do, as Republicans do – that meta-model helps simplify experience but at the cost of accuracy. But if we increase the accuracy we also increase information overload. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

The point to remember is that any attempt to make sense of our experience – to model it – involves simplifications, involves throwing babies out with the bath water. And the second point to remember is that – according to our meta-model a la Simon, Hawking, etc., –  we have no choice.

A 20 year old Peter, like other young people, spend the next 50 or so years searching for meta-models – cogntively and emotionally affordable beliefs and biases – that help them make sense of the potentially overwhelming and noisy flow of experience.

In the next post we see Peter starting to gravitate toward messy and noisy realities rather than neat and tidy ones…

Karl Popper: flickr.com/photos/minibite/2714204775/

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Posted in: Sciencing