Reality-Based Model Switchers

After all the discussion among the chattering classes of the twenty-two percent who ranked “moral values” most important in exit polls, I imagine most people are moral-valued out. So I'll pretend not to talk about that subject.

Instead, my subject is a distinction between us and them that I think might be useful; I wonder if you buy it. In a recent Bad Attitudes post, I claimed that progressives, regardless of their religion but definitely including Christians, are more likely to find common ground with deists than theists. Now I'm arguing that there's a crucial distinction to be made on the question of how we model reality.

Models of Reality

My theory is that we generally deal with the outside world through models. We make models in our heads of how things work. When we want to manipulate that part of reality, we use our mental model to predict what will happen, and adjust our actions accordingly.

The tricky part comes when the model's predictions don't fit what actually happens. The purely rational approach, of course, is to adjust the model. Another popular approach, however, seems to be blaming reality for failing to follow the model, and growing frustrated through continued application of the flawed model (“until it works”).

Based on this earth-shattering analysis, I'm about to make some grotesque generalizations and medidate thereon. Disputes are welcome.

The Get-a-Grip Pole

It appears to me that there are many people in the US (if we can trust the voting machines…) who are kind of queasy about their hold on reality. Some need to be reassured that reality is as they conceive it, while others are more concerned about the strength of their hold and the possibility of losing their grip.

It seems to me that these are standard human concerns: am I crazy? How would I know? Do other people think I'm crazy? How would I know?

I suspect that when I'm unsure of my footing on a subject, I'm more likely to grab onto one particular interpretation of the world and stick with it. I might soon come to regard the consideration of new information as heresy, as medieval Catholics regarded science. After all, if consideration of information makes sense, that implies that some part of one's world view might be wrong. This prospect unsettles some people more than others.

Gary Zukav's Dancing Wu Li Masters uses various meanings of the Chinese term for “physics”—wu li—as chapter headings. One is “I clutch my ideas”. To do so can be both a comfort and a distraction.

The Define-Your-Terms Pole

Then there's a section of the population that says, Well, what do you mean by reality? Are you talking about the physical world as we conceive of it now? Consensus reality as we deal with it communally? Some sort of Platonic ideal? In other words, define your terms.

This group, among whom I count myself, feels the discomfort that comes with realizing that one's world view diverges from the world itself. But that feeling is generally accompanied by one of exhilaration at learning something new, which often leads, cyclically, to increased ability to affect the world. There's a cost associated with adjusting the model. But in the fairly short term the cost of not adjusting the model is greater; so we like to think that we'll make those adjustments, and we often do.

There's at least one aspect, though, in which we can be as blind as our opposite numbers: we find it as hard to understand their beliefs as they do to understand ours. Who can fail to see that other people should be allowed to have different beliefs? This is not a new question. But it's an uncomfortable fact that many people don't think different beliefs are okay. My group still stumbles over that fact, startled each time we encounter our old friend.

Why This Distinction Matters

If willingness to change world views is a relevant distinction, this fact might help us realize how we're perceived by people for whom world view is not a choice but a given, perhaps in some sense a revelation.

It might help us to communicate with people who use a similar vocabulary but slightly different semantics. The effect is often confusing. At best, we fail to understand each other. At worst, we mistake intentions.

I'm still avoiding the moral values thing; but I continue to assert that the party of the left, whatever it's called, needs to address the forty percent that didn't vote more assiduously than the sliver grandly designated the “swing vote”. What, forty percent couldn't swing an election? Or have we simply privileged the so-called “swing voters” over the rest of us, who may as well stay home? (Nothing against the two states, but does it really make sense for Iowa and New Hampshire to have as much influence as they do? I have to admit that I occasionally wonder whether California derives enough benefits from the current federal arrangements to justify the costs…)

Anyway, I'm led to the concept of noblesse oblige with respect to changing reality models. Many of us believe, like Bertrand Russell, that to refuse to change your philosophical opinions when new evidence arrives is foolish. But we realize (or must realize) that this view isn't universal; for some people, eternal verities are beacons in a misty passage.

One of the most useful concepts I encountered as a technical writer was that communication depended on me using terms my readers understood. What was important was not whether I said the words that seemed right to me, but whether the reader extracted the correct information from the words I provided. So I'm quite willing to use whatever words present my argument honestly.

I think the progressive message, presented frankly and honestly, has a great deal more to offer the average American, and the average citizen of the world, than the politics of the right, whether the far right, whose “moral values” mean restricting the behavior of others, or the near right, embodied for me in the crypto-Republican corporate rule of the DLC. So why don't we stand up and speak about it? Well, sometimes someone does. I think to some extent Howard Dean did that. And look what he got, and will continue to get for the rest of his life. Not everyone's willing to put up with as much shit as Ralph Nader got from people who agreed with him on the issues. The Democrats apparently spent about $20 million to turn back the Nader threat. I know inflation's taken a toll, but couldn't they have bought at least a House seat for that?

What the left needs in order to reassert itself is not clear to me. It seems to me the message is there, and a receptive audience awaits. Please God, not another Napoleon.

You're welcome to use this form for private as well as public comments; but if you don't want your comments posted to this site, please say so explicitly. As far as I know, this form works in every case, unless you're running XP (and if so, why?). If you have problems with this form, send your comment to

All fields are optional.