Do you believe you are intelligent?
Do you believe gurus or Gods have blessed you and humanity with wisdom?
These delusions blind you to why you are making big mistakes.
Look at the mess people make of our world. Think of all the problems each person has. What could be the cause?
It certainly isn't our intelligence causing all these problems. Nor has our wisdom or enlightenment made any difference.
Ignorance has far greater control over our lives than you know.
All the benefits of human intelligence are nullified, or worse, perverted into apocalyptic technologies.
Why is ignorance so powerful?
It is invisible. You can't see what is not there. You can't look for a thing you don't know. You can't study and understand what does not exist.
Still, like a phantom, it is ruining your life.
Stop hiding in your delusions, blaming and excuses. Face your ignorance.
This article reveals the nature of human ignorance. It explains ignorance in simple terms. Shows how it cripples people, and how it blinds and imprisons the entire human race.
You will even learn how ignorance — feels.
But most importantly, you will learn how to go from ignorance to competence on any subject.
Let's get started.
How to detect your level of ignorance
You need a quick way to identify how ignorant you are about a subject. Each numbered section below describes a different level of ignorance.
I explain the deepest level of ignorance first, followed by higher levels of competence. Your level of ignorance about a subject will match one of these descriptions.
The number preceding each level is its estimated relative usefulness. The higher the number, the more useful.
Once you understand all the levels, you will know how to move from total ignorance to competence.
0.0 Unconscious responses. What they are and why they can be your worst nightmare.
We are all born with zero conscious mental abilities
At birth, the human brain is still developing. A baby cannot use words to think or be self-aware.
All learning is subconscious. Subconscious learning is how animals learn.
Ivan Pavlov discovered that if you always ring a bell just before feeding dogs, they would subconsciously associate the ringing of the bell with eating. Then, every time he rang the bell the dogs would begin salivating. This learning is called behavioral conditioning.
Conditioned behaviors are subconscious and robotic. This is the primary way children learn.
Even as an adult, you are learning new conditioned behaviors.
These conditioned behaviors control your actions and thoughts several times a day.
But you don't know when your responses are robotic unless you know how it feels.
How do unconscious responses feel?
Conditioned behaviors are subconscious. They just happen to you, as outlined below.
- You have no control over the what, when, how and why of your subconscious thinking.
- What: Your subconscious mind is programmed with robotic responses. You don't choose the trigger or the behavior and you cannot change them. In your subconscious mind, the reward-trigger-behavior is inseparable.
- When: When you experience a trigger, you robotically respond with a conditioned behavior. You believe you chose your actions. You may invent excuses for your actions.
- How: Rewarding a behavior will program it into your subconscious mind as a preferred action. The reward often comes from some other person.
- Why: You don't have a logical reason, purpose or goal for learning conditioned behaviors. Your subconscious mind doesn't think that way. If there is a reason, it comes from another person.
- Qualities you cannot control.
- You cannot change any emotions or feelings generated by a conditioned behavior.
- You cannot change automatic thoughts triggered by a conditioned behavior.
- You cannot remember creating a conditioned behavior.
- You cannot talk to other people about logical reasons for a conditioned behavior. But you will probably give a lot of illogical excuses.
Since you lack awareness of subconscious responses, your primary clue is how they feel.
As an example, consider how a primitive person feels when they first see a photograph. They feel emotions and urges to smile and talk with the person in the photograph. The photo triggers these and other social conditioned behaviors because it looks exactly like a person.
Primitive people often think a photo has a soul because they cannot change how they think about something that looks like a person.
The primitive person senses the photo is not a real person, but they are stupefied by multiple problems simultaneously attacking their conscious mind from different directions.
They cannot stop their inappropriate robotic reactions and emotions. They don't know what a photo is. They cannot figure out the correct response. Plus, they have feelings of confusion and mental conflict. But they are ignorant about mental problems and don't know what to do. So, they ignore their feelings or invent silly stories to feel better.
Then they keep doing the same thing over and over because it is the only response they know.
Modern people suffer from similar problems and stress if they don't understand how to detect and correct conditioned behaviors.
But there are even bigger problems as explained next.
The problems of unconscious thinking
The unconscious mind has very few thinking tools. So conditioned behaviors are really dumb.
If you do not know how subconscious responses feel, you cannot detect them and apply the enormous intelligence of the conscious mind to manage conditioned behaviors.
Plus, you can't logically talk with other people about improving your subconscious behaviors.
You are stuck with simple, non-optimum reactions. You are trapped in a robotic mind.
In our modern complex world, robotic reactions can harm you and other people can use them to control you.
But it can get much worse.
Robotic emotions, thoughts, and reactions seem to come out of nowhere. These robotic events may feel as real as any physical world phenomenon. Or even more real.
When thoughts become this real, the thoughts control the person instead of the person controlling the thoughts. Then, thoughts take on a personality all their own.
When a person is controlled by their thoughts, they can become afraid of thoughts.
The fear of thoughts can cause unbearable stress, panic attacks, or even force a person to do self-destructive things.
Once you understand conditioned behaviors, you can use conscious thinking to detect, analyze, and correct these robotic responses.
1.0 Monism. Why Monism is the lowest level of conscious thinking.
What is conscious thinking?
You are a stream of tangled conscious and subconscious thoughts. In this confusion of thoughts, your conditioned behaviors go undetected. Then, when these robotic thoughts cause problems, you have no idea why things went wrong.
Identifying and correcting your subconscious thoughts is not an easy task.
You need some guidelines to help you separate the unconscious from the conscious thoughts.
Being conscious of your thoughts is only passive awareness.
Conscious thinking is not passive. It is consciously controlling your thoughts.
This is a detailed list of how to know a thought is conscious.
- You choose the what, when, how, and why of your thoughts
- What: You consciously choose the topics of your thoughts.
- When: You control when to think about a topic. You can schedule it for now or later.
- How: You choose the thinking processes you apply to your thoughts. You could use critical analysis, imagination, logic, semantics, humor, or other methods of thinking.
- Why: You think a thought for a reason or purpose. Otherwise, you don't create the thought and it does not appear in your mind.
- You control the qualities of your thought
- You can change the meaning of the thought. You can add or remove related subjects and alter their relationships.
- You can change your responses associated with the thought. Your chosen responses may be mental and/or physical.
- You can change your emotions, feelings, values, and other qualities attached to the thought.
- You can show other people how you control your thinking.
- You can remember creating and changing the thought. You can tell people how you controlled the thought.
- You can realistically discuss aspects of the thought and how to improve it.
- You can change the qualities of your thought and any connected behaviors right in front of people.
If you have difficulty catching a thought, holding it, and measuring its level of unconsciousness and consciousness, you can use meditation to build up your mental skills. I recommend you read "A revolutionary meditation guide: Match techniques to your abilities," or other articles in the MEDITATION section to help you.
Anytime you discover a thought that is not conscious, use the tools of your conscious mind to control and improve it.
Your conscious mind uses symbolic thinking.
What is symbolic thinking?
One of the simplest types of conscious thinking is to associate a thing with a symbol.
For example, the word “chair” is a symbol for a thing you sit on. You can't sit on this word. But the word triggers a mental response that informs you about chairs.
Sounds, fragrances, and visual images can also be symbols. The sound of a siren means danger and will cause you to be alert.
Notice that these symbols are very similar to associating the ringing of a bell with eating food.
But when you have conscious control over the meaning and responses connected with the symbol, that is conscious thinking.
Symbolic thinking ranges from simple to infinitely complex.
Monism is the simplest.
What is Monism?
Monism is consciously associating a single symbol with everything.
Here are some popular Monism ideas.
- All things are physical. Mental and spiritual phenomena are physical phenomena and science will eventually explain everything in terms of physical processes.
- All things are mental. Physical and spiritual phenomena are mental phenomena and everything will eventually be explained in terms of mental activities.
- All things are spiritual. Physical and mental phenomena are spiritual phenomena and everything will eventually be explained in terms of spiritual activities.
People endlessly discuss these topics and often change their decisions, definitions, and methods of analysis. Notice that these discussions require considerable conscious control over mental activities.
You probably think these philosophies are silly. Yet, you use this simplistic thinking every day, as you will see next.
You are a Monist. Really! You can't help it.
Creating a single inclusive classification is what everybody does when they encounter something new.
Imagine going to your first meeting with the local book club. The meeting is short and you get only the names of the members. In your mind, you have no choice but to classify all of these people as “Book club members”.
Everyone goes into that one class. You can't create subclasses or individual descriptions until you spend more time with them and have more information.
After you learn more, you put people into subclasses. Some may be Romanticists or Realists. You could also put them into other types of classes such as teachers, clerks, or bus drivers.
But, anytime you experience new things, you automatically put them all into one class.
You are a Monist.
Putting everything into one class is fine as long as it works.
But when a simple class stops working, do you recognize your problem?
How does Monism feel?
If you believe most things are the same and belong in the same class, it will force you into some very sick conclusions which cause some very sick feelings.
Here are some frequently occurring Monism ways of thinking.
All men are the same. If you ever have a bad experience with a man, then you know that all men are just as bad. All men act in the same bad manner, and you should handle them in the same way.
Humans are born, eat, sleep, have sex and eventually die just like animals. Humans are the same as animals, and you should treat them like animals.
The human body and brain are composed of moving objects. All moving objects obey the scientific laws of mechanical motion. Therefore, humans are the same as any other mechanical object. Humans are machines and should be treated like machines.
Monism and oversimplified classes compress everything down to the lowest possible similar condition. You feel severely limited in who you are and what you can do. This is very depressing. That is how Monism feels.
Now, let's look at additional problems of Monism.
The problems with Monism
The top-class definition is always misleading
Monism is a stubborn insistence that all things are the same and belong in a single class. Also, the class definition is the most important information you can know about the members of the class.
But this contradicts the entire history of science, our most successful field of study. Science endlessly corrects top-class definitions after discovering new facts about the members of the class.
As an example, Chemistry began centuries ago with the concept that all things are composed of four basic elements: earth, water, air, and fire.
After discovering real elements, they redefined “element” to mean substances which could not be divided or decomposed into simpler materials.
New discoveries forced chemistry to change the definition again. Now an element is a substance that cannot be divided into other substances by chemical reactions. They found that elements decompose and combine to make other elements by nuclear reactions but not chemical reactions.
Chemistry has become an enormously valuable body of knowledge. For each element, we have thousands of processes for producing useful products.
Now, the definition of “element” is shallow compared to the vast knowledge in the subclasses.
Here are some conclusions we can draw from the history of Chemistry.
- After the first contact with a subject, everything is placed into a single, simple class definition.
- The discovery of new data causes the definition of many subclasses. The subclass structure becomes very wide and deep.
- The subclass members dictate the continuous correction of the top-class definition.
- The top-class definition is usually a shallow, one-sentence description of little information or value and is often misleading.
- The only value of the top-class name and definition is as a reference to the entire subclass structure.
The problems of Monism don't end here.
Monism implies there is a single response to everything
Monism considers a class to be one monolithic entity. There are no individuals within the class. All class members are the same. Therefore, each member must be treated the same.
This is the exact opposite of science.
Science identifies individuals in a class. For example, Hydrogen is an element within the class of elements. Within the class of hydrogen, there are three naturally occurring isotopes plus four isotopes produced in laboratories. The hydrogen isotope with one neutron can occur as a single atom, a plasma or a molecule of two atoms. Each hydrogen atom in the universe can have its electron at one of many energy levels. The characteristics of individual Hydrogen atoms go on and on.
Science is successful because it can identify unique individuals far down in the subclass structure. Then, science provides multiple processes that work only with that unique individual to produce valuable products.
Now, find out why Monism creates the opposite of knowledge.
Monism prevents freedom of thought.
Monism is a stubborn focus on the top-class definition. There is no way that a class definition can sufficiently describe all the members of a class. So, top-class definition obscures the valuable unique qualities of each member.
To deny this uniqueness is not only ignorance but an attack on your freedom of thought.
It stops you from looking for and understanding differences. That prevents you from discovering new ways to respond and control your world.
Now, let's look at the psychological problems.
Monism causes psychological problems
Monism focuses on how things are the same and ignores differences.
Over two thousand years ago, Buddha tried to cure people of thinking things are the same. He called it identifying.
Buddha explained the problem of people constantly identifying with classes such as the class of man or woman.
For example, if Bob identifies with being a man, he then feels obligated to comply with the class definition of men being courageous, powerful, and successful. These ideals demand perfection and cause a lot of stress.
There could be negative biases such as men are brutish. If Bob accepts this belief, he would become a brute.
Bob can also inherit problems. He will feel guilty about the brutishness of other men, even if he is not a brute.
Another type of problem is Bob will make serious errors if he treats all men the same.
Alfred Korzybski, in his 1933 book, “Science and Sanity”, explains the error of sameness.
Identity is defined as ‘absolute sameness in all respects’, and it is this ‘all’ which makes identity impossible. If we eliminate this ‘all’ from the definition, then the word ‘absolute’ loses its meaning, we have ‘sameness in some respects’, but we have no ‘identity’, and only ‘similarity’, ‘equivalence’, ‘equality’, etc. If we consider that all we deal with represents constantly changing sub-microscopic, interrelated processes which are not; and cannot be ‘identical with themselves’, the old dictum that ‘everything is identical with itself’ becomes in 1933 a principle invariably false to facts (2, page xcvi).
Modern psychologists call identification a cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortion means a distorted mental view of the world.
Stuffing everything into one class and ignoring the vast differences always distorts reality.
All these difficulties have driven many people to the next level of ignorance called Dualism.
2.0 Dualism forces everything into two classes, causing some very destructive problems
Dualism is the belief that there are only two types of things
The most famous Dualistic theory is there are two types of things, the physical and the non-physical. All objects, including human bodies and brains, are considered physical. The non-physical things are mental activities or the spirit world.
Dualism started a heated argument with the Monists. The Monists believe everything is of one type. The Dualists believe that mental and/or spiritual are different. Even today, some of our leading philosophers and physical scientists endlessly argue which is correct, Monism or Dualism.
The first thing to notice about Dualism is that it is a conscious mental activity. People must make multiple conscious choices about meanings. They also discuss their reasoning and often change some of their beliefs.
The second thing is Dualism is symbolic thinking, just like Monism. Dualism puts things into two classes and represents those classes with words (symbols). The word “physical” is a symbol for one group and “mental” is the symbol for the second group.
Now let's see why people use Dualism.
Yes, you are also a Dualist
Just like Monism, you can't avoid being a Dualist. It's a natural progression. You start at zero knowledge about a subject. When you make first contact with a subject, you stuff everything into a single class (Monism). When you learn a little more about the subject, you realize there are some important differences. Not everything fits nicely into one class. So, you split everything into two classes.
There you are. You are a Dualist.
Since Dualism is a natural progression, it creeps into all of your thinking. You just don't realize it.
Unless you know how it feels.
How does Dualism feel?
When Dualism is your way of perceiving the world, you only see opposites.
So how do you feel when you must choose between two extremes? Find out by asking yourself the following questions.
- Are you a good person or a bad person?
- Are you a success or a failure?
- Are you with me or against me?
If those questions don't make you feel uneasy, then how about these?
- Are you angelic or evil?
- Are you a multi-billionaire or a loser?
- Are you a genius or an idiot?
- Are you a servant to our republic or are you a traitor?
- Do you still beat your children? Answer with a yes or no.
Notice that these either/or questions force you to have a distorted and sometimes sick point of view.
You deal with either/or questions all the time because people like the simplicity of Dualism.
But these distorted realities cause multiple mental and social problems.
The problems with Dualism
Dualism creates two opposing extremes
In some ways, Dualism is worse than Monism. When you must divide everything into two groups, you automatically feel that the groups oppose each other. Then, competition and conflict seem natural and necessary. The following attitudes just pop into your mind.
- Us against them
- You are either with us or against us
- We win, and they lose
These situations are false dilemmas because they falsely claim there are only two choices and both are harmful. There are other choices but the either/or blinders hide alternatives.
Here are some additional mental attitudes that cause false dilemmas.
- True or false
- Yes or no
- Good or bad
- Black or white
Notice that the above mental concepts are opposites and extremes.
They are classifications. For example, people often classify things as either bad or good. Once a thing is classified as bad, people consider it all bad. This “all bad” viewpoint is extreme and usually not true.
The class name and definition is like an adjective that describes all the class members.
Psychology has another way of describing this problem.
Dualism creates cognitive distortions
A person's eyes may see perfectly. But if a person's mental interpretation of what they see contains errors that harm the person, these errors are called cognitive distortions.
When a person perceives things as either type A or type B, psychologists call this polarized thinking or Black and white thinking.
To see how distorted these either/or viewpoints are, ask yourself, “Are you a success or failure?”
Within a single day, everyone has many successes and failures. During several years or over your entire life, you will have countless successes and failures. And your past does not completely determine your future.
To think your entire past, present and future life is a simple success or failure is an error in your representation of your life.
You can look at a rainbow and say it is red and you would be correct. But, if you believe a rainbow is only red, then you suffer from an extreme cognitive distortion of reality.
But for many people, Dualism is a subconscious, habitual, and natural way of looking at their world. They are ignorant of how they are thinking.
Unchecked Dualism can create uniquely damming and devastating mental conditions.
Now, let's see how it destroys your abilities.
Dualism limits your responses
Dualism limits you to only two ways of thinking about things. You cannot imagine other possibilities.
Your limited thinking limits your responses.
You may never realize there are other alternatives besides competition and conflicts.
You cannot respond with constructive, unifying activities. Instead, you can only respond with actions that increase competition and hostilities.
But Scientists have broken through the barriers of Monism and Dualism as explained in the next level of ignorance.
100 Scientism. Ignorance about how science works.
Why scientists are extremely successful
Scientists promoted physical experiments to be the primary source of truth. This demoted human beliefs to the bottom because experiments constantly proved human thinking to be wrong. Testing beliefs removed the barriers to progress — the old traditional and sacred concepts.
With total freedom of thought, scientists made big scientific breakthroughs.
But freedom of thought was not the only reason for their success. Constant testing, measuring, and documenting physical reality forced them to use unlimited classes and subclasses to describe all the differences and similarities they discovered.
Their robust class structures described reality with greater detail. This accuracy minimizes cognitive distortions and other errors compared to naïve class structures like Monism and Dualism.
For even greater accuracy, scientists used infinite valued equations to model relationships. An example is force = (mass) x (acceleration). This equation gives the force required for any value of mass and acceleration. Infinite valued equations describe reality to any desired accuracy, further reducing distortions in their symbolic representations.
Scientists use their extremely accurate models to identify unique situations and respond with precise actions.
Now, scientists have an enormous library of processes that produce predictable, consistent, powerful, and valuable results.
But these successes have made some scientists overconfident.
Scientism claims physical sciences will eventually solve all problems
Scientism is the belief that based on past achievements, science will eventually solve all mysteries and eliminate all problems. This is the promise of Scientism. You must have faith — according to Scientism.
Some scientists and philosophers go even further. They claim physical laws will explain all phenomena. That includes all mental, social and all other phenomena.
Some extremists claim you can ignore most of the laws of the physical sciences and explain everything using only the basic laws of mechanics. Everything is reducible to the physical laws of colliding billiard balls (Determinism).
Science enjoyed unlimited experimental hypotheses, unlimited class structures, laws, and equations. But now, Scientism wants to reduce other fields of study to the simple laws of Physics.
Why is Scientism so appealing to some people?
Yes, you suffer from Scientism
You may not be a scientist, but you probably believe you have access to great knowledge. If not from science, then from your teachers, traditions, religion, or just because you are so smart. Overestimating your intelligence is a common cognitive distortion.
Most people need this false confidence to face their frightening challenges.
But the primary reason people have false confidence is that they don't know what they don't know. Yes, it's the hidden problem — the unknown unknowns.
Lucky for you, the following information will help you detect this false confidence.
How does Scientism feel?
You may have had many successes. You may have proven yourself as a fast learner and a high achiever. But then you try to be productive in an unfamiliar field, and you can't seem to do anything right.
Most people just ignore their failures and continue doing the same thing while expecting a different result.
This is the same way a primitive person handles their first exposure to photographs. A photo of a person looks just like a person, so they have to treat the photo like a person. They just don't know what else to do. Even worse, they don't know that they don't know. They feel stress and anxiety, but they even ignore their feelings because they don't know how to handle their feelings.
Modern people can be conscious of their failures but blame others instead of admitting they have an insufficient understanding of the situation.
They may be aware of their stress and anxiety, but consciously choose to reduce these emotions with distractions or meditation. But managing symptoms does not solve the problem.
Scientism stops people from finding new solutions for the following reasons.
The problems with Scientism
People use the word ‘Scientism’ when they criticize naïve attempts to extend the success of science into other fields of knowledge such as Psychology and Sociology. But everybody makes similar errors when they don't understand their past successes. Therefore, you can learn by understanding the errors of Scientism.
Scientism claims the methods of science are the only path to understanding.
What are the methods of science? Some methods scientists have used are guessing, lucid dreaming, and often trial and error. The wide variety shows there are no consistent methods of science other than to do whatever it takes to make their models of reality more accurate.
For Scientism to limit methods to what they call scientific methods is not helpful for science or any other field of study. They should encourage new methods.
For example, performing experiments on humans usually requires double-blind tests, statistical methods and finesse to control psychological factors. Otherwise, test results may be distorted.
Scientism prevents discovery in other ways as described next
Scientism claims that all other fields of knowledge are reducible to the laws of Physics
Scientism assumes that science is coherent with all of reality and all fields of knowledge. Therefore, all fields of study should be reducible to Physics. But Physics is not even coherent with itself. There are many contradictions between Einstein's Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. There are even several paradoxes within Quantum Mechanics. Therefore, Physics is not coherent within itself.
Furthermore, Einstein's Relativity and Quantum Mechanics have different laws about different environments that entertain different phenomena. Their laws are not redundant, they are complimentary. And you certainly cannot reduce Einstein's Relativity to Quantum Mechanics or the reverse.
Reducibility does not apply to human thought and social interaction. For example, teamwork requires constructive exchanges, mutual understanding, mutual trust, and agreements to name a few. These processes are at a much higher complexity level and they require social causation laws that cannot be reduced to simple laws of Physics.
Another missing fact is that causation goes in all directions. From big to small and small to big. From complex to simple and simple to complex. The nature of the small and simple does not cause all the properties of the large and complex.
For example, only supernovas or collisions of neutron stars can produce uranium atoms. These extremely massive and high energy stellar events require specialized laws to describe these unique phenomena.
Old beliefs are not sacred. There is always room for new laws, classifications, and even new fields of study.
And the world is changing faster than science.
Scientism is unaware of the paradigm shift away from the physical sciences
The advancement of the physical sciences is now more dependent than ever on social organizations. The physical sciences are maturing. New discoveries are usually very difficult.
Now, forward progress often requires the cooperation of thousands of people and the contribution of billions of dollars. An example is the resources required to build and use large subatomic particle colliders for research. The difficulties have become so great that there is a long-running discussion on whether we have reached the end of Physics and possibly science.
There is even a shift away from physical reality. With thousands of people and billions of dollars we landed men on the moon and brought them back safely. Humans now change physical reality to what they desire.
Causality is always a compromise between many causes.
Now science and even physical reality depend on people's psychological and social whims.
To save science, we must understand how to extend the successes of science into Psychology and Sociology.
Scientism is ignorant of symbolic representations
Scientism claims to be the owner of truth and reality. But, in all of science, there are no truths or realities, only naïve and inaccurate symbolic representations.
You don't have to take my word for it. Scientists are constantly proving their theories to be wrong.
Scientists will continue to increase the accuracy of their models. But the universe is infinitely complex and evolving. They will always be slow followers.
Even worse, scientists ignore the foundation of their success — symbolic representation.
They do not research, validate, formalize, apply, or teach the principles of symbolic representation.
Their misuse of symbolic representations continues to be beyond their consciousness.
1,000 Conscious use of symbolic thinking
The success of science proves accurate models are powerful and useful.
But for science to progress and spread into other fields, everyone involved must know when they are using symbolic representations and how to use them.
How to know you are using symbols
Words are symbols for other things.
Other common symbols are math symbols, street signs, and warning sirens.
Words are the most used and most powerful symbols. Also, most symbols follow the same rules. Therefore, I will explain only word type symbols.
Anytime you hear, see, say, or think words, you are using symbols.
It's that simple.
How does the conscious use of symbols feel?
When you know you are using words to create more accurate models of reality, you consciously applying mental tools to your symbolic thinking. You are conscious of every decision you make and why you make them. Your progress is smoother and more enjoyable.
Problems will pop up.
But after reading this section, you will have many more tools for handling problems.
You will have less negative emotions. Plus, you can track these feelings back to their cause and work on the models causing the mental stress. Mental stress comes from a disagreement between your map of reality and the real-world.
Now you need to know the problems of using symbols.
The problems with symbolic representations
Symbolic representations are completely disconnected from reality
Symbols create sentences like the following.
“The blue chair is soft.”
In the previous sentence, the color of the word “blue”, is actually red. You can't sit on the word “chair”, and the word “soft” does not feel soft when you touch it.
These symbols don't resemble their meanings.
Words rarely resemble real-world things. That is why other languages can use other words to refer to a chair.
So, we associate words with meanings by mental processes.
Whenever you perceive a symbol, your mind automatically gives you the meaning of that symbol.
But your imaginary blueness, softness, and chairness differ from the actual things. The only way for you to find the chair is to compare your mental meaning about chairs with how you perceive real chairs.
Note that you perceive chairs differently than other people. Also, your interpretation of sentences is unique to you. Plus, your method of comparing sentence meanings to perceived things is different. These processes are in your head and your head alone.
Where else could these processes be?
To bridge this disconnect between mind and world, you must constantly use your symbolic representations to make predictions and check them for correctness. If there is an error, then your mental processes are in question.
Additional errors can be caused by the inaccuracy of words.
Words are not designed for accuracy
Words have vague meanings.
For instance, if I say “The chairs,” I could be referring to any number of chairs on Earth. Since there are almost eight billion people on the planet, there are probably over eight billion chairs. Therefore, my reference to chairs is not very useful since it does not specify which chairs.
Like most words, “chair” is a general reference. This makes words flexible. I could say, “Stack up all the chairs in the room”, and I would not have to specify each chair. Or, I could say, “Please sit on the blue chair.” If there was only one blue chair, you would understand.
Generalized words are great until you have to explain something complex like how to describe all the components of a chair. Then words are inefficient.
To increase the accuracy of your statements, you must add more and more words.
But no matter how many words you use, your statements will never be exact.
Why symbols cannot exactly describe reality
To expose the limitations of words, let's try describing a specific blue chair.
Just imagine the words required to describe all the chair's components. Each component has a location, orientation, color, shape, physical properties, chemical composition, and small imperfections.
Now try to describe the details of every atom of the chair. Then try to describe details about each subatomic particle. Then, describe how all those particles are interacting with every other particle in the universe.
Obviously, a simple chair cannot be described exactly.
Below is a list of the reasons exact descriptions are impossible.
- The vastness and complexity of the real world approaches infinity
- Describing the details of reality with words is impractical for humans to generate.
- The Universe is changing faster than any human can comprehend. Describing reality as it changes is even further beyond the abilities of humanity.
- As humans describe reality, they also increase their ability to change the future, making the future more unpredictable. Descriptions immediately become outdated.
- Even if you had a detailed description of reality, it would be too much for any human to read or comprehend.
These facts explain why humans suffer from gross inaccuracies about reality. Or, in psychological terms, people have cognitive distortions — some more than others.
But there is another reason you create inaccurate models of reality.
Classifications inherently distort descriptions of reality
Classifying is a method of using symbols to think about similar subjects as a group. But these imaginary groupings don't exist in the real world.
For example, the platypus is an egg-laying mammal that nurses its young but does not have tits. It has a duck's bill with special electro-location sensors for detecting prey. Plus, it has a beaver-like tail, webbed feet, and its hind feet have a spur that can inject venom into opponents it attacks.
When scientists in Great Britain first received platypus pelts and descriptions in 1798, they thought it was all fake because the platypus disproved their class definitions.
After 200 years of research and playing with classifications, the platypus still defies a tidy definition.
In 2008, gene sequencing of the platypus found that over 80% of the genes are common to mammals. But there also are genes found only in reptiles, while others are unique to birds, amphibians, or fish.
The platypus highlights the unavoidable distortions caused by classifications.
Why unavoidable? Because classes simplify how we think about reality. Classes hide complexity by including oddities that don't belong in the class or by ignoring their existence.
And why are we always thinking with classes? Let's face it. You can't handle the complexity of your world. You have no other choice but to use simplified descriptions of reality.
But there are more problems with classes.
Class definitions are vague summaries
Classifications are a way of organizing your thoughts.
Classes function like an alphabetized dictionary. Organizing words alphabetically does not provide any information about the meaning of words. It only helps you find a word and its meaning.
Another benefit of classes is the class structures can sometimes appear similar to structures your mind sees when looking at reality. Your subconscious mind automatically recognizes patterns and imagines structures so you can quickly recognize objects.
People like to make class structures match the way their mind automatically structures information. Examples are the Chemistry Periodic Table and company organization charts. This similarity makes thinking about reality easier.
But the benefits come with a cost. Class definitions are usually single sentence descriptions of the members. If you use only the summary in your thinking, you lose any details about the unique class members.
You could make harmful mistakes.
Classes appear everywhere in your thinking. You use classes so often that you are unconscious of all the ways they distort your thinking.
But, if you consciously use classes and avoid the pitfalls, you can maximize the benefits and minimize the errors.
People often put too much faith in the meaning of words
People often talk about what is real and what is true. This careless use of terms makes people believe they are talking about truth and reality. This is a misunderstanding of symbols.
Remember, no matter how verbose your description of a chair, your description is not accurate. Your thinking is never the same as reality.
Furthermore, all your thinking exists in your head and nowhere else. You must continuously produce the mental meaning in your mind or it goes — poof!
Gone forever and without a trace. You can construct a similar mental meaning, but it is never exactly the same.
So, how do you solve these problems?
Take complete control of symbols as tools.
Using symbols to create classes and other models of reality is a necessary but imperfect solution.
It's like riding a bicycle. You must constantly check and correct your balance, steering, peddling force and how you progressing toward your chosen goal. Otherwise, you will crash and burn.
When you use symbols, you must consciously balance the complexity and accuracy of your symbolic representations to match the complexity of the problem and available data.
Sometimes the data will limit you to Monism or Dualism. But you can consciously temper your decisions based on your confidence in your classifications. Also, you can decide if you need to pay the price of increasing the accuracy and complexity of your classes.
Any problem you attempt to handle is probably a moving target. The complexity of the problem may change, or you may just learn something new about the complexity. So balancing your model complexity is a continuous conscious effort.
The goal you are trying to achieve and its value will also be a moving target. You must continuously correct your steering and efforts.
You must monitor how well your mental model is working. Are your predictions adequate? Does your model give you the right tools with enough leverage to get the job done within your limits of time and resources?
Staying in the sweet spot requires consciously applying everything you know about symbolic representations.
Symbolic models of reality are nothing more than tools. The only thing that matters about any tool is how helpful or harmful it is.
This article explains just the basics of symbolic representation.
I will write future articles on applying symbols to Psychology and Sociology.
An excellent source of additional information can be found in Dr. Michael Hall's book, “Executive Thinking”.
If you have difficulty managing your emotions and thoughts, you can improve your skills with the article, "A revolutionary meditation guide: Match techniques to your abilities." You can find other helpful articles in our MEDITATION section.
Escape from your ignorance
Now you have a definition of ignorance. You can easily detect when you are ignorant, even when there is nothing to see.
Now you know how ignorance feels. You can track these feelings back to the problem.
Now you know symbolic representations will always have missing data and distortions of reality.
Now you know you can increase the accuracy and usefulness of models by increasing the details of your descriptions.
With this roadmap, you can navigate from any level of ignorance to competence. Plus, you can correct and optimize your mental representations of reality.
You will not repeat big mistakes. With more accurate and powerful models of the world, you will be more successful.
Now, let's put this knowledge about symbolic representation to work!
References and Notes
Writing of this article would not be possible without the study of the following publications and others from these authors.
1. HALL, L. MICHAEL. (2018). EXECUTIVE THINKING: Activating Your Highest Executive Thinking Potentials. Clifton, Co., Neuro-Semantic Publications.
2. Korzybski, Alfred. (1933). Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristoteliean Systems and General Semantics. 5th ed., Fort Worth, Tx., Institute of General Semantics, 1994.