Matching the Territory

Before I get started with this, I was considering changing the content of my About page. It’s overflowing with vague similes, flighty language, shameless self-promotion. It doesn’t give a comprehensive explanation of the point of this page. It doesn’t point to examples; it draws boundaries around terms that barely belong together; it confuses and refuses to justify itself. In adopting this tone, it completely glosses over the need for a disclaimer.

But manipulating language does not manipulate reality. It simply reflects an falsehood. In the words of Eliezer Yudkowsky, the map does not match the territory.

The territory, good or bad, is this. Whatever subject matter I choose, whatever tone I adopt, whatever facts I decide to lay on the table and scrutinize, a sixteen-year old brain is doing the processing. I’m interested in language and poetry, and I’m interested in Bayesian reasoning and cognitive bias. Both of these libraries are dedicated to finding truth. All I can do is lay out the pieces. For all my interest in rationality, Bayes’ theorem still is beyond me. Yudkowsky’s “excruciatingly gentle” explanation involves statistical calculation and mathematics that a junior pre-calculus class simply cannot cover.

According to Wikipedia, Bayes’ theorem is:

P(A|B) = P(B|A) * P(B) / P(A)

where A and B are events, A|B represents the probability of A given B is true, and B|A represents the probability of B given A is true.

I have read articles and worked out math problems and experienced small epiphanies, one after the other. But epistemic rationality, derived from equations, keeps eluding me, or else falling through my fingers. This kind of applied statistics reads right to left, like Arabic, and is difficult to intuitively grasp, perhaps because the theorem is intended for real world use, and so rarely can real life situations be reduced to proportions and percentages.

For example, last night I tried calculating the probability of hearing from my boyfriend. Taken from a pool of ten days, results ranged from around 10% (4:30 PM EST) up to 76% (2:00 AM EST). Conversely, the probability that I’d get a text from the boy I’m trying not to talk to anymore, who put his arm around me at a party, who doesn’t make me stay up half the night waiting on a reply, whose replies have a 5.6% chance of being a single word as opposed to the 66% chance from my boyfriend, was, on average, 50%, prevented from reaching 100% only because of half the nights when I broke down and messaged him first.

Through all this calculation, the sole most important fact that I learned was that probability and statistics do not have an effect on reality. What matters is concrete events, which probability can only guess at, and reactions to events, which probability does not touch.

So I am the opposite of an expert. I am curious, astute with fact checking, bothered by encountering an unsolvable puzzle. But not knowledgeable. What I can offer is an attempt at getting to the heart of what applied rationality means, and when that attempt fails, I can offer salve in the form of someone else’s writing.

Never have I ever been so dedicated to understanding something that did not come naturally to me. I can see the appeal of rationality easily. Decision making all of a sudden simple, a weighing of pros and cons. Claritin clear vision looking at the world.

The best explanation I can think of for these links from rationality to writing is that color cannot be explained with definition. To best exhibit the property “red,” you don’t pull out the dictionary. You point at an apple. Then you eat the apple, and hopefully it is delicious. 

I don’t have much more to offer than this. Usually, a stronger focus will be placed on examining one aspect of rationality in detail, in layman’s terms, hopefully with specific examples and anecdotes linking rationality’s necessity with real world experiences where it was desperately needed, and then a poem that addresses the issue far better than I could. But I wanted to start out on the correct foot. A little stumbling. A lack of pride.

Truth be told, I’d like to experience learning by teaching. Already today I’ve learned that language’s power rests in shaping future events. Not the present. No matter how many times I tell my best friend that the boy is nobody serious, only a distraction, that my boyfriend is just going through a rough time and it’ll pass, it changes nothing about the territory my words map. It only induces confusion and loss for the traveler.

In the following short nonfiction piece by Randon Noble, the map drawn by the words is one of medical professionalism, of detachment and thoughtfulness. In the considerate formation of the structure, the reader feels taken care of. But this is a false assumption, especially when the author is in such a disarray.

I hope to lay everything out on the table. Maybe then, once visible, the pieces can start being moved into place.

Read The Heart as a Torn Muscle

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