Friday, January 12, 2018

Tapping the Unconscious – The Secret to a Great Story

A good story requires good writing. That’s a given. But even with good writing, some stories are amazing, and some are just okay. This means that there must be something else at play, but what? The answer lies in how writing transports us into other worlds, stimulating our imaginations to take us somewhere else so vividly that we can forget where we are.

When it comes to perception, our mental wires are tangled up in a messy web. Colors feel warm or cold. Musical tones feel like emotions. Shapes will make us wary or put us at ease. Everything we sense or experience is connected with all kinds of other things, most of which have no connection in the outside world. This is how metaphors work. If a writer says the sky is smooth as glass, it creates a picture in your mind of cloudless blue, even though the sky and glass have nothing in common.

Can you guess which of these shapes is called a "kiki" and which is called a "bouba"? Around 90% of people choose the same thing, regardless of native language.

The best stories are those that resonate with us, tickling these crossed wires so that we get to things that are deep and meaningful. It is one thing to talk about human nature analytically, and another entirely to learn about it through the guided experience of an artist’s hand.

Back in the early days of psychology, Sigmund Freud modeled the mind as three layers, the conscious, which is where our thinking and perceiving and everything that we are aware of takes place, the unconscious, a vast ocean of ideas, beliefs, and calculations we are completely unaware of, and the subconscious, which lies between the others, and takes things from the unconscious and brings them to the conscious.

Freud’s contemporary, Carl Jung, added to this with the idea of the collective unconscious, a commonality of the unconscious minds of all of humanity. He came to this idea by looking at mythical archetypes, characters, events, settings, etc., that appear in stories all over the world. For instance, there is the hero, who does grand and difficult things for the good of their community; the mentor, who helps the hero reach their potential; the trickster, who manipulates everyone for their own ends; and many more. It is a common misconception to think that Jung meant everyone’s minds are connected. What he really meant is that humans have a lot of the same stuff in our unconsciouses, just like we all have two hands and two eyes.

Influenced by Freud and Jung, mythologist Joseph Campbell came up with the idea of the monomyth, also called the Hero’s Journey, which is a structure that the most powerful stories in human history, the ancient myths from all over the world that have survived until today, adhere to. The monomyth has several stages, including the call to adventure, crossing the threshold, death of the mentor, figurative or literal death and rebirth of the hero, ultimate triumph, returning home with the prize, and others. Few stories have all of the monomyth’s elements, but most of the great ones have some. It is also worth mentioning that there are other story formats that resonate besides the monomyth.

Star Wars: A New Hope is often hailed as the modern representation of the monomyth.

The fact that tales from all over the world follow this structure suggests that the secret ingredient that makes stories great is when they resonate with the collective unconscious. You may have heard writers say that the story already exists, and they are just putting it to words. Back in the day, there was an idea of a personal genius, a spirit that gave creative people inspiration for their work. It turns out this is not merely superstition; the subconscious mind functions just like a personal genius, bringing forth the best ideas from the reservoir of the unconscious. When creators follow the guiding of their genius, it is an expression of the unconscious, and when this expression resonates with lots of people’s unconsciouses, it is a great story. True art appears when the artist looks inward and lets their heart guide them.

Friday, January 5, 2018


Toolbelt of Knowledge:

One undervalued resource on the quest for understanding is learning from people with views different from our own. We usually spend our time around people who agree with us on most topics, and we avoid talking about what we disagree about. But this is not a productive way to live. When people who agree get together, they move toward more extreme versions of what they already believed, and when people who disagree get together, they mellow each other out and move toward the middle. Because of this, it is important to have uncomfortable conversations with people we disagree with.

Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris, and Eric Weinstein, discussing free will, religion, and other topics on the Waking Up Podcast.
What makes these conversations so uncomfortable? It is because when we hear statements we disagree with, we feel disgust. Pay attention to what you are feeling when you read the following words: capitalism, socialism, climate change, abortion, gun rights. Chances are, you felt something uncomfortable stirring inside you from at least one of these things. Don’t worry, I won’t talk about any of them today. I just want to show you what I mean, so that when you feel it during a discussion, you can recognize it, put it aside, and focus on the logical points of the discussion rather than your discomfort.

On the flip side, we are delighted to hear ideas and opinions we agree with. It is like eating something delicious. These two emotions push us into confirmation bias, where we pay attention to evidence that supports ideas we agree with, and ignore and avoid evidence that supports ideas we disagree with. Confirmation bias is one of many cognitive biases, shortcomings in our brain that motivate us to believe things, or continue believing things we already believe, for bad or insufficient reasons.

Even if you train your mind to reason and recognize cognfirmation bias, you aren’t immune to it. There is only one inoculation, and that is to seek out people who think differently from you and listen to what they have to say. Your beliefs might seem airtight, but that might be because there is something you are overlooking, which somebody else knows. These beliefs might be anything—religious, political, scientific, philosophical, moral, practical, etc. As knowledge seekers, we wish to mold our beliefs to Reality, not try to will Reality to conform to our beliefs. To best do this, we need to practice listening in the right way, looking out for special signs, and remembering that our goal is to enrich ourselves, not to change somebody else’s mind.

The first thing to have in mind is that people assume that those they are talking to are on the same page. This is by no means true. Try talking to someone from a religion you don’t belong to, and it sounds like pure gibberish. When you converse, make sure to ask questions like, “what do you mean by this?” and “could you explain that in another way?” Not only will this help you understand the other person, but it may prompt them to think of their own beliefs in ways they never have before.

Dennis Prager of Prager U, Dave Rubin of the Rubin Report, and Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society discuss the relationship between God and morality.

If you want to explain your point of view to someone who disagrees with you, you want them to be open and willing to listen. The first way to do this is to treat them respectfully, showing that you value them as a person and don’t belittle them for their opinions. This is necessary if you want to get anywhere at all. After that, an extremely powerful tool is called the steel man argument. In contrast with the straw man fallacy, a steel man is where you explain someone else’s view in a way that they wholeheartedly agree with. Once you have done this, they will be more likely to be open to your counterarguments.

Many times, when we disagree with something the moment we hear it for the first time, it might be because if it were true, it would mean something else we believe is not true. Usually, we don’t consciously know which belief is being threatened, but have only a vague sense that something is wrong. This makes us uncomfortable, but instead of a mere distaste like we talked about earlier, we get a headache. Trying to hold two ideas in our head at once that contradict each other gives us physical pain. This phenomenon is called cognitive dissonance.

Though cognitive dissonance is painful, we should train ourselves to embrace it, because it is a beacon that points to a deeper knowledge of the Truth. If we follow it, we will find ourselves weighing the new things we learn against our deep convictions, and sometimes, if the evidence is strong enough and we’re humble enough, we allow our convictions to change.

Taking your deepest convictions from their sacred pedestal and opening them up to be tested and possibly falsified can be frightening. When I first questioned the foundation of all my knowledge, and it crumbled before my eyes, I almost shut down. What kept me going was the hope that even though I was wrong about everything, there was a Truth out there somewhere, and I could stumble my way toward it by building up a set of tools to lay a new foundation that could endure or adapt to anything that was thrown at it.

Professor of Psychology Jordan Peterson on the Joe Rogan Experience

It’s tempting to think to yourself, “I already know this, but this other person I know really needs to hear it.” But we all need to hear it, and we all need to keep practicing listening. You’ll find that if you are good at listening, it does not bother you as much if other people are not.

It is okay to let somebody else be wrong, even about facts. We have an inbuilt desire for everyone to accept what is true, especially if they are someone we respect and care about. However, we must remember that there is nothing magical about facts that make them believable by themselves. We need the broader context and critical thought to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Sometimes our brains fail us, or we fall to biases, or we simply don’t have enough information to figure out the answer. The poet Alexander Pope once wrote, “To err is human.” Remember that you are talking to this person to learn from them, not to persuade them of your own beliefs.

The last important part of listening is knowing when not to listen. It may be uncomfortable to hear someone’s point of view if they disagree with you on certain issues, or if they are not good at having productive conversations, but these conversations are still worth having. But there will be times when someone is not interested in having an honest conversation with you, and their aim is to insult or to get you to spend money. When you sense this, there is nothing for you to learn from them, and you can walk away.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Predicting the Future

Visions of the Future:
Making Predictions

Ten thousand years ago, humanity transitioned from hunter-gatherer tribes to farming settlements, towns, and cities. This became known as the agricultural revolution, and is marked in history as the beginning of civilization. Two hundred years ago, the technological power of science was discovered, increasing the production of goods by thousands fold. This was the industrial revolution, and it again changed civilization. Now, we are in the midst of a third revolution, the digital revolution, which started when the use of computers began to spread, and is still in progress today. With every revolution comes a shift in the way people live their lives and view the world. This can be frightening, but by keeping a clear head and drawing on the knowledge we have of history and the enterprises underway today, we can weather the storm and rest in the knowledge that things will probably end up even better than before.

We humans have a tendency when thinking about the future to shrug and say, “who can know what will happen tomorrow?” The weather report is notorious for incorrect predictions, and every single poll was wrong about the most recent U.S. presidential election. But there is nothing magical about the future. It is true we cannot be sure of the details of what will happen tomorrow, but reality is not random. Random is a word that means “something a human brain cannot find a pattern in.” Nothing is truly random; that would be quasi-real. Instead, it is probabilistic. The more you know about how things work, the better you will understand the probabilities, and the better you will be able to predict the future.

Thousands of years ago, a solar eclipse was a mind-bending experience. The sun was not supposed to go dark, so when it did, it was seen as an omen of the most terrible things, such as the end of the world. When they would happen, only the gods knew. But once intelligent and learned people started to chart the paths of the moon and sun through the sky, they gained the ability to predict when the next eclipse would occur. Nowadays, using computers and Newton’s Law of Gravity, we can predict the time and length of a solar eclipse, as well as the track it will take over the Earth, a hundred years in the future, to the exact minute.

In his science fiction series of short stories, Foundation, the author and futurist Isaac Asimov proposed a fictional branch of psychology called psychohistory, which could predict the future of human history with mathematical equations. In the story, the psychologist Hari Seldon is able to predict the fall of the galactic empire and set events in motion so that over a thousand years, a new, grander empire will rise from its ashes. Each of the short stories in the series tells of a turning point in history, a “Seldon crisis,” predicted by Seldon’s model, such as an approaching war or a dictatorship trying to build its own empire, and how it is solved by those who trust in the mathematical power of psychohistory.

The better versed we are in the tools of science and mathematics, the better the educated guesses we can make about the future. The most knowledgeable collaborations of experts today have predictive ability about halfway between solar eclipses and psychohistory. We can make models of complex systems like the Earth’s climate for the next hundred years at a low resolution and an uncertainty of only a few percent. Though we cannot say with certainty what the future of humanity will be like, the more we know about history and philosophy, and the more practiced we are at critical thinking, the clearer it appears.

In this new series, Visions of the Future, I’ll talk about the ways I think things will change in the future as a result of the digital revolution. Some are positive, some are negative, and some depend on whether people can adapt their views. For the series, I make the common sense assumptions that people crave freedom and true knowledge. Because of this, though there might be periods of oppression and backward slippage, the long-term march of history is toward a better standard of living for all.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Magic of Emergence

Toolbelt of Knowledge:

Suppose you have three blobs of paint, one blue, one red, and one yellow. They aren't very interesting, just puddles of color sitting in packets on a tray. Now suppose you have a large, blank sheet of paper. If you came across one of these while walking through a building, you would probably ignore it and forget that it was there. You also have a stick with fine hairlike bristles on the end. It is mildly entertaining to tickle your thumb on them. All these things are pretty boring on their own. Mostly they just sit there, doing nothing. But if you combine them, you can make something new: a painting. In fact, you can make an incredibly large number of different paintings. When you combine the right paintings, you can get an art gallery or museum.

In a logic-based universe like ours, there is a feature that is truly amazing. A few simple things can come together and make new things, which have properties and functions that are different than their parts. This is called emergence. The new things can then come together to create more things at a higher level of complexity, which can then come together in an even higher level of complexity.

Let's think about matter. Its basic building blocks are protons, neutrons, and electrons. It's actually more complicated than that, but this is correct enough for our discussion. These things, in various combinations, make up all of the atoms on the periodic table. These elements react together in chemistry making millions of different kinds of molecules. These molecules make up water, bricks, ink, plastic, DNA, and all of the kinds of matter in the universe. Types of matter come together to make systems, which can combine to make more complex systems, and so on and so on.

Emergence appears anywhere logic presides, including mathematics and computer programs, Many games use a few simple elements to create a huge variety of ways to play. Take chess, for example. It has a king, a queen, bishops, knights, rooks, and pawns, each with its own way to move. From the rules of these pieces emerge an unlimited number of games and strategies, like pins, forks, and Scholar’s Mate.

The fact that endless complexity can arise from simple parts is awe-inspiring. Knowing how emergence works can boost our creativity and help us understand all kinds of things we once thought inexplicable, opening doors of knowledge that lead to possibilities boundless and amazing.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Are We Entering a Post-Truth Era?

Turning on the news these days, it may seem like people have abandoned the idea of Truth in favor of their own beliefs. With news sources going at each other’s throats, politicians using stage manipulation tactics instead of rhetoric, and constant outrage plastered all over our social media, it can feel like nobody cares about reality anymore. The question arises, have we entered a time when the respect that we humans have for Truth will slowly decline until it fades away?

I think not. I think it likely that the idea of a post-truth era comes from the availability heuristic. As humans, we have a set of cognitive biases, shortcuts we take in our reasoning, which often lead us astray. The availability heuristic is a bias where we put more weight on what we see, without finding out whether this small amount of information is an accurate representation of the whole. Take a break from the screen and the newspaper, and pay attention to the people around you. You can probably tell that they are interested in true knowledge, even if you disagree with them on some things. The news runs on sensational stories, so the regular, polite, average person gets pushed to the side, and all we see are those who are loud and have their blind spots on display.

The truth of something is not always obvious to everyone. It would be easy to think of something that you know nothing about, such as the most abundant species of algae in the world. Yet there is someone out there who knows it like the name of a best friend. Even if something seems obvious to you, there are people who have never considered it before, and those people may have some knowledge that seems obvious to them, but that you have never thought of before.

I don’t think this state of many groups of people disagreeing about all kinds of things and having their own “truth” is new, I just think that with the age of the internet, these different views are being exposed to regular people on a global scale. For the first time in history, knowledge and opinions are easy to come by, so all of the weird things that people believe are suddenly on display. The tempting reaction to this is, “that’s not right, stupid. Have some common sense,” but we seldom realize that we ourselves may have views that they see as equally obviously wrong.

The thought that in some golden age of the past everybody had common sense and believed the truth, is an illusion. Everybody believed whatever they wanted in the past too, we just couldn’t see it. But that’s not all. You see, there is something special about Truth: it fits together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. With information freely available, even with so much nonsense out there, anyone with an honest interest in the pursuit of Truth has a much easier time nowadays than they did in the past. I think it is safe to assume that the average person desires to become smarter and wiser, and because of this new opportunity, they will, and so will humanity as a whole. Instead of entering a post-truth era, I believe we are emerging from a pre-truth era. The unrest and outrage we see all around are merely the birth pangs of a new age of Enlightenment, where knowledge and wisdom abound, and the good people of humanity can join together in creativity and cooperation.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Moral Theory VI: So How Should We Live?

Moral Theory:
I. Intuitionism
II. Authoritarianism
III. God
IV. Ethical Egoism
V. Utilitarianism
VI. Virtue and the Golden Rule

Last time in the Moral Theory series we started from basic observational facts about human beings, and building on them with logic, came to the conclusion that the objective truth of morality is Utilitarianism, where utility (the good to be maximized) is defined as the sense that things are as they should be, both outwardly and internally, which I summarized with the word “satisfaction.” Yet even though this is built on a bedrock of logic and facts, it still has a lot of problems. The most glaring is the information problem. To do what is best, one must know two impossible things: the subjective experience of other people, and all dimensions of all possible consequences of all possible actions. Almost all of the people in the world know what is good for them better than anyone else does, with the exceptions of young children and sometimes people who are very close to one another, and most of us are bad judges even of what is best for ourselves. The effects of moral actions are part of a vast, chaotic system, where one thing causes eight more, which each cause many more, and so on. We know so little about the broader consequences of our actions that we might as well be clueless.

But we don’t have to rely on Utilitarianism alone for moral guidance. That would be like using only quantum physics to try to figure out how to use a new coffee machine. Sure, quantum physics is the bedrock truth of how matter works, but there are easier ways of thinking about coffee makers to get them to do what you want. The same is true with morality. Utilitarianism may be the bedrock truth, but there are other, simpler systems that can guide us to do what is good. Throughout the series, we have talked about some of these systems, but now with Utilitarianism we have the tool we need to evaluate each system and compare them to each other, to determine which is best for which situation.

The simplest, most elegant system for good moral behavior is the Golden Rule. It has several different phrasings. The Book of Matthew in the Bible says, “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Confucius said, “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” But my favorite, and what I think strikes best at the heart of the rule’s meaning, is the way Immanuel Kant stated it, which he called the Categorical Imperative, “act so as to treat people always as ends in themselves, never as mere means.” This means that nothing is more important than people, and everything we do should be for the benefit of people. This might seem familiar. After all, it is basically the same good as identified with Utilitarianism, except explained in way that is easier to apply to our everyday encounters with others.

The Categorical Imperative has an added bonus, in that it resonates strongly with our moral intuitions. It just feels right. When searching for a way to live morally, the Categorical Imperative is a great place to start, and even if one lives their entire lives without moving to something more complex and nuanced, it has a very high chance of leading to a life full of goodness.

However, no one is perfect, and people fail to live up to the moral expectations of others and of themselves. People break rules, they lie, they steal, they shout at each other and refuse to understand. Despite this dismal truth, though, there is no need to despair. Instead, we can look to Virtue Ethics, the principle of accepting ourselves and others as we are, and always looking for the next step to become better.

It is not reasonable to expect anyone, least of all yourself, to become perfect overnight. People can change, but only through small, gradual changes over time. Virtue Ethics is a way to focus on that change in ourselves, not to compare ourselves to others, but to measure ourselves against what we were yesterday, or last week, or last year. When we succeed at this, we feel an amazing sense that the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, which is revered by philosophers as a state of mind more desirable than happiness. It is the sense that, though things may not be perfect, we are moving in the right direction internally, and because of that we can accept life as it is given to us.

Virtue is a clean, nourishing word. It brings to mind traits like patience, courage, and self-control. However, virtues are not a set of rules for how to live, rather they emerge as side-effects of a person's never-ending journey toward being a better person. Virtue Ethics is all about the journey, not the destination.

Utilitarianism may be the bedrock factual truth about morality, explaining what is good, but it does a lousy job at telling us how good we should be and what to do to get there. So instead of being a guide to morality itself, it works better as an objective standard by which to compare other moral systems that are subjective, but easy to digest. Most of what we have talked about in this series does not score very well. However, the Categorical Imperative, considering its simplicity and all the good it leads to, gets an A, and the contagious positivity of Virtue Ethics gives it an A+. Combining Utilitarianism's objective scale, the reference point of the Categorical Imperative, and Virtue Ethics’s push to always move forward, we have found a robust system of morality, which can be as complex or simple, as nuanced or general, as global or personal as we need it to be.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Announcing: Short Story Series, The Well of Images

Read Chapter 1: Pandora’s Gate, at

After years of blogging, practice writing, and listening to experts, I am proud to announce the debut installment of an original series of short stories, called The Well of Images, formerly under the working title of Project Soul. It tells of the adventures of two college students who discover that the Jungian collective unconscious is literal, and they have the ability to go there and explore. In this series of worlds made out of mind stuff, the characters meet mythical archetypes, face sides of themselves that they didn’t know they had, and confront deep questions about the natures of humanity and reality.

The series will be laid out with several “books,” which have overarching plots and themes, which are broken into “chapters,” which each contain their own plot. It is like a TV show, with the books being seasons, and the chapters being episodes. The first book, The Mentor, The Hero, and the Trickster, will have five chapters, and the others may have more. I do not have a release schedule, since I do not know my own writing speed well enough to know the correct pacing, but I would not expect more than one chapter every two months. The first chapter, Pandora’s Gate, is finished and available for reading.

November is over, which means National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has come to a close. This year, I wrote drafts and scenes of The Well’s upcoming chapters. The default goal of the event is to write 50,000 words by the end of the month, but I kept instead to my personal goal to write at least 1000 words every day. I found this to be easier than last year, and it gave me better results too, leaving me with workable material instead of pure trash.

In a continuing story like this, there is no way to predict everything that will need proper setting up. I might look back on the early chapters with the wisdom of hindsight, and want to touch them up and make slight alterations to the events. Because of this, I’m reserving the right to come back and edit these early chapters if I feel it is appropriate.

They say you need to write a million words in practice before your first book gets published. Right now, I’m at a few hundred thousand, and The Well will be the key to the rest. It is my first serious attempt at an original story with the knowledge I have gained from blogging and from listening to experts, and I feel like I am making good progress. Someday, I just know, I will be able to walk into a bookstore and find something with an eye-catching cover and my name on it, but for now it’s a step forward to post stories on the internet for free.