The Idea

Written on my iPhone (mostly on trains) during the first week of October, 2012.

The idea has been developing slowly in my head since 9/11. Even after more than 11 years, no one seems to get it but me. Yet I’m still convinced it is a useful idea. In fact, I consider it possible that our survival as a species may depend on us getting this idea. That is why I persist.

What is the best starting point?  Information theory? Shannon vs Fisher? No, too abstract. Evolution? Limbic vs Cortical? Too obscure. Critical thinking and the philosophical issues? Dialectic arguments, etc? Too far afield for me. How about the political angle? Partisan vs bipartisan? A complete cliche.

The train is pulling into Jamaica. Time to change. No Brooklyn tonight. My flight is still over 100 hours away. Will I get it all done?

So what is the thread? What holds this idea together? There is so much entropy. So many competing ideas. Why do some ideas crystallize into a solid lattice of truth, while others evaporate into the vacuum of space?

I miss Woodside. Haven’t been there since Nina moved out. Can’t remember her appt. Long time ago. Too bad I won’t see her, Chen or the kids this trip.

What is the goal of truth? Why do we worship it? That’s it! That’s the starting point. The goal of truth. We place so much faith in the concept of truth. No! Truth can not have goals. Only we can.

My ears pop as we enter the tunnel. Just a few more minutes to Penn station. Mom and dad looked great today. I’m so glad I got to see Tom and Ming Ming and the kids. A very productive trip to the island. Track 17 has always been my favorite.

What is the utility of truth? How does it serve us? What good is truth if no one believes it? I guess knowing the truth helps us survive. So evolution and survival is next.

Carbon monoxide monitor changed. Filling cabinet delivered. Yes I am satisfied with the 9:00-11:00 AM scheduled delivery time. Thank you for not making me sit around at home all day. Two more items scratched off the list.

Our ability to process information helps us to survive. The reptilian or limbic brain helps us tell food from poop, friend (or mate) from foe, but only the cortex can keep us from annihilating ourselves.  Only the so-called higher level functions enable us to set our own goals. Goals that go beyond survival of the individual.

60 Wall St. The atrium. The favorite meeting place of Occupy Wall Street working groups. Hope some people from Vision and Goals show up. I really miss those folks. 84 hours until my flight. I should be home working. Will I get it all done?

Information. Why are there two very different ways to describe it? Shannon describes how a signal differs from white noise. There is no information in white noise. The electrical signal of a telephone conversation contains information that reflects the thoughts of the speaker. The goal is communication. Fisher describes how the information in experimental data correlates with the “truth.” The better the quality of the data, the closer it should come to predicting the “truth.” The goal is describing our universe. Which one is right? Which one is the true description of information?

Nice meeting with the Vision and Goals working group. I really miss them. Great to catch up. It’s too bad there has been so little progress. After a year, it is sad to think there is still no vision or goals statement for the OWS movement as a whole.

Politics. Bipartisan vs partisan. Me me me vs us us us. Solving problems vs promoting careers. Are such obscure topics as evolution or information theory in any way relevant to such concrete problems as politics? Is it silly to think there is a connection? Not to me.

The trickiest part of cleaning the apartment is vacuuming. It can not be done at 3:00 AM. Almost anything else can. Scratch that off the list. 66 hours to go.

Before 9/11, I believed the information age would eventually solve humanities fundamental problems. For the first few weeks after 9/11, I saw the heavy focus on the distinction between good and evil as the reason the information age failed to bring about any real change. Over time I realized that good and evil was just one of many distinctions that we tend to dwell on. That’s when I started thinking about the distinction between dichotomous thinking and problem-based or goal-oriented thinking.

I didn’t really have to go to the lab today. The computers are running fine and I can still access them over the net. The paper work could have waited until my next trip here, although it is good to have it done. I mostly needed to show up and be there. Make sure people know I’m still alive. In a physical sense, at least.

One of the problems with the idea as I see it is that the distinction between dichotomous thinking and goal-oriented thinking appears somewhat arbitrary. Usually, when one draws a distinction, it is between opposites (good and evil, black and white, etc). This distinction is not as clear, unless you think of it as a distinction between the past and the future. In the end, I have no compelling reason to focus on it beyond the parallels I see with neuroscience and information theory as well as its potential importance to our survival as a species.

Do I have time for tango tonight? Not really, but I need a break. I should stay home and upgrade my C program, but that is just not going to happen. It will be a while before I can go out again in New York. As long as I finish cleaning the apartment by tomorrow afternoon, it’ll be OK.

When animals use their reptilian brains to process information, they use a dichotomous Fisher-like method. The main goal revolves around a “truth”, the accuracy of which will determine the animal’s survival. When humans use their higher level cortices to identify goals and to develop strategies to achieve those goals, the process goes well beyond drawing dichotomous distinctions. I see us at a stage in our evolution where we are right in the middle of transitioning from pure dichotomous thinking to a state of balance between dichotomous and goal-oriented thinking. Understanding the nature of that balance is critically important.

Tango is the most wonderful diversion. The music, the scene, the old familiar faces. So great to reconnect. Should still be able to get the apartment ready in time for the girls. 54 hours to go. I won’t get everything done, but I should be able to clear the essentials.

In the world I envision, racism will be virtually non-existant. Its remnant will just be seen as the dichotomous noise that it is. Most of our other fundamental problems will still exist, but the number of people asking “what is the nature of the problem and how do we address it?” will far outnumber those saying “It’s so-and-so’s fault.” We will still have war and terrorism, but it will be much harder to instigate them. We will still have poverty, crime and substance abuse, but they will be treated as a problems to be addressed not as the results of bad or lazy people. We will still have greed and environmental pollution, but the partisan bickering that prevents us from arriving at rational policies won’t be tolerated by anyone.  In the world I envision, the rejection of overly dichotomous statements will be a knee-jerk reaction. This is why I try

Banking done. Suit back from the cleaners. The apartment is ready for the girls!!  I’m probably not going to get to the C program for a while. Version 19 may have to do for a bit longer. Off to Long Island again.

So what are the barriers to the world I envision? What stands in the way?  Why would an activist dedicated to abolishing capital punishment, want to take the time to point out the overuse of dichotomous thinking? What is the benefit?

The Massapequa train never leaves from track 17. Its a beautiful summer day in the beginning of October. Go figure. A great day for the island. Wish I had time for the beach. 40 hours to go.

Dichotomous thinking only plays a small part in our fundamental problems. The root cause of most of our problems is ultimately the laws of nature. While we can not change the laws of nature, we can change the way we use information. This is one of the few things we have almost complete control over. From an energy point of view, information is virtually free, at least on the individual level. The trick has always been how to convince others. What’s in it for them. How do we overcome the huge entropy barrier to getting everyone on the same page? Again, what would motivate someone who is dedicated to one particular cause to adopt something that has only minimal direct benefit to that cause?

I really don’t have time to buy birthday gifts for my nieces, and besides, what is the chance that I would pick out something a teenager would like? For a while, their gifts have been a day in the city.

I see two reasons why it is possible to hope that this idea will someday be widely accepted. First, it is ultimately a simple idea. We live in a complex world. There is, all to often, a reluctance to accept how complex our problems really are, but most people know deep down that this is true. The second is the long-term benefit. Regular use of the word dichotomous and pointing out imbalances between dichotomous and goal-oriented thinking will ultimately facilitate progress in almost all of our fundamental problems.

Madam Tussauds was amazing. I had no idea the faces would look that real up close. If you position yourself the line of site of the eyes, you feel like you are actually meeting the person. A poor substitute for real human contact, but still pretty cool. The girls loved the celebs.

So, as succinctly  as possible, the idea is this, striking an appropriate balance between dichotomous thinking and goal-oriented thinking is one of our most fundamental problems as an evolving species.

Massapequa, girls with their dad on the way home. Last Long Island Railroad trip before flying out. 7 hours to go. Still have to pack. No C program upgrade, but it was all worth it. What’s the point of trying to help the human race if you can’t stay connected to it.


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