We use a lot of words these days like “truth” and “facts” and “right” and "wrong". We flash them like swords in some ancient conflict. And yet, nobody ever seems to agree on their meanings. Arguments flare up and perpetuate. Relationships are worn thin, teams form. Episodes of violence break out. The meaning of these words, like the horizon at the end of a long highway, continues to elude us.
Many of us look to authorities for answers. In their high and dusty chairs, Intellectuals point at these words, preaching that on average, things are trending better. But things don't feel better. Elsewhere, in key-lit pulpits, preachers point at a book as the arbiter of meanings, hypothesizing that thought and exploration are dead ends. Still the intellect wonders what's beyond. No finality is found in either place.
It's clear that these words must mean something. Why else would we fight for their sake? Why would we look for their meanings at all? Something must be at stake.
The answer to these questions is found in how a mind processes information.
In this essay we will discuss:
The way a mind converts information into action,
How changing the context in which an action is taken will change the action,
How all actions are based on subjective judgment of available information,
What's at stake in an argument.
A mind takes information as its inputs and generates actions as its outputs. This process is constant and influences everything we do, say, and want.
Before we get into the details of how it works, let's take a moment for a story.
Parable of the Bridge
A long time ago, when simple life was still the norm, Apple John was on his way over the mountain path to the next town to sell a bushel of apples. At the point furthest from each town, he came upon an old rope bridge crossing a river canyon. The bridge looked like it was in need of repair: some of the decking was rotted and missing, the ropes were frayed to threads, and a wind nudged it into a persistent sway.
Scenario 1 - The Stranger. Apple John approached the bridge, and noticed a strange man resting by a tree nearby. He did not know this man and he really didn't like the look of that bridge.
“Good sir," Apple John asked him. "This bridge looks in need of repair. Is it safe to cross?"
The man replied, "I cross this bridge every day with my mule, hauling a load of grain. I assure you it is safe."
What should Apple John do?
Scenario 2 - A Friend. In this version, Apple John approached the bridge and, instead of a stranger, he saw his close friend, Jim Goodfellow, who had a reputation for never telling a lie.
"What a surprise to see you, honest Jim Goodfellow", Apple John called, “Is the bridge safe to cross?" “I cross this bridge every day with my mule, hauling a load of grain." Goodfellow replied. "I assure you it is safe."
What should Apple John do?
Scenario 3 - An Enemy. Now, suppose that instead of Jim Goodfellow, the man by the bridge was Apple John's enemy, Ben Badwater. Ben laid claim to Apple John's land via a loophole in the common law. The court ruled that he would take possession of it in the event of Apple John's death. “Ahem," Apple John mustered, "Ben Badwater. Do you by chance know if the bridge here is safe to cross?" "I cross this bridge every day with my mule, hauling a load of grain. I assure you it is safe."
What should Apple John do now?
The Mechanism for Action
In all three scenarios of the bridge parable, neither the bridge nor Apple John changed. All of the people he encountered told him the same information, that they cross the bridge every day and believe it to be safe. Yet he was led to 3 different actions. (Two if he's trusting.) In my view the three scenarios play out like this:
Stranger - Need more info. Perhaps pay the stranger to show that it's safe. Cross if safe, turn back if stranger won't comply.
Friend - Trust Jim Goodfellow at his word. Bridge is likely to hold. Cross.
Enemy - Turn back. Can't trust a man who is incentivized to mislead you.
How did we arrive at such different outcomes? The only element that changed was the person he asked leading into his decision of whether or not to cross. This one piece of information, the person at the bridge, changed the entire outcome.
What we gather from the bridge parable is that while Apple John cannot know the state of the bridge until he crosses, his actions change based on the representation of the bridge in his mind. That representation is created based on the information available to him leading up to the decision of whether or not to cross.
From this we can conclude that the value of information is in how it influences our actions. Absent action, information has no purpose. Information cannot change the state of the world, but it can change our perception of it.
The OODA Loop
Let's unpack the elements of the story. There are 6:
Objective - arching over all three scenarios, we have Apple John's objective to sell apples in the next town.
Decision Point - when Apple John reaches the bridge, his actions will affect the outcome of his objective. He must decide what to do.
Context - the context is the environment in which the bridge is encountered. Apple John gathers all relevant details about the bridge from this Context.
Judgment - once Apple John has enough relevant details, he creates a judgment about the safety of the bridge.
Decision - Once a judgment has been reached, Apple John can decide whether he should cross the bridge or not.
Action - The fulfillment of the Decision. The act of crossing or turning back.
The last four elements — Context, Judgment, Decision, Action — come from a decision making model put forth by USAF fighter pilot and strategist John R. Boyd, called the OODA loop. The OODA loop is a model for independent decision making, intended to describe a mechanism for decentralized command and control in combat. It would be accurate to say that Apple John's objective and the decision point are parts of the context, but they are extracted here for clarity.
All information consumption can be described via the OODA loop. It happens in a passive mode continuously. In the bridge parable, the context changes in each of the three different situations, leading Apple John to different judgments about the bridge's safety, which affects the outcome of his decisions.
The Missing Piece - Encoding
While the OODA loop is descriptive of our implicit ongoing decision making process, it tells us nothing of how our capacity to make decisions changes over time. So there is one missing piece in the basic representation of OODA: Encoding what happened in the last cycle into the context of the new cycle. Let's revisit Apple John to see why this matters.
Scenario 4 - Apple John. In this last version of the parable, suppose one key detail in the context is changed. Instead of encountering someone at the bridge, it is Apple John who has crossed this bridge every day with his mule, hauling a load of grain.
What should Apple John do now?
We notice in this final version of the bridge parable that Apple John does not have to rely on another's account in order to gather information about the bridge. Instead, he has crossed the bridge himself many times, each time cycling through an OODA loop to cross. His memory of having crossed the bridge safely, is a key element in the context now. He has encoded his experiences into his memory, which make his decision of whether or not to cross much easier. Barring any major changes in the appearance of the bridge, the weather, or other anomalous information, Apple John should cross.
Now that we have a dynamic model for decision making, the OODA-E Loop, We can build on it to understand how humans process information.
In figure 3, I converted the OODA-E loop into a state machine. This is the cycle by which Human Information Processing happens. We can call it the HIP Cycle. Each node of the HIP cycle represents a form of information as it travels through a human mind. The arrows between states denote the operation that changes the form of information from state to state.
The HIP cycle is entered relative to an objective or issue. It begins with the raw context. The informational context is consumed and interpreted into a judgment, or meaning. That judgment motivates the mind to a decision, which is tested via action. The results of the test are encoded into an artifact, such as a memory, which is stored as part of the ongoing context.
The informational context is the realm of facts, events, memories, incentives, prior judgments (precedent), and things. Elements of the context are anything that can be consumed via the senses or called up from memory. They are atomic particles of information. Uncorrupted and solitary, the elements of the context say nothing on their own. In the bridge parable, who Apple John encounters at the bridge is part of the context. The rotting decking and frayed ropes are contextual elements.
Elements in the informational context are components with which we can assemble judgments and meanings. They can be objective or subjective. Objective elements arise out of nature and time. They are, or were at some point, empirically verifiable. Subjective elements originate in a mind. They are imagined or remembered. Needless to say they are not empirically verifiable.
These elements have a spectrum of relevance depending on an issue. In the bridge parable, it's easy to intuit that the person Apple John encounters at the bridge is an important detail, but something like the pH content of the river water below the bridge would not be. When we are interpreting the context into a judgment, the elements we choose are critical to the credibility of our interpretation of the context.
An effect of this spectrum of relevance is that when people argue, although the words they use refer to who is “right” or what is "true", the content of their argument is actually over who has chosen the elements most relevant to the context. Each participant considers the judgment they have interpreted to be more credible than their opponent's because they believe the details they have chosen are more relevant.
Judgment is the realm of opinion, story, news, law, art, predictions, and advice. A judgment is an interpretation of a set of contextual elements that have been chosen based on their relevancy to an issue at hand. Apple John's assessment of whether or not the bridge is safe to cross is the judgment he draws from the context in which he encounters it.
A judgment suggests or dictates a decision. If you hear distant thunder but left your car windows down (context), you may conclude that your car seats may get wet in an approaching storm (judgment). Naturally, this conclusion motivates you to drop what you are doing and roll your windows up (decision).
A judgment is by definition subjective, since it's assembled from contextual details in a human mind. This is important to note. There are no objective judgments. Without minds to process information, the context does nothing and can have no meaning. There is no "truth", and “facts” do nothing.
The subjectivity inherent in the interpretation step of information processing opens the door for different judgments to be assembled using the same contextual details. We see this often in the news, for example when a politician says something controversial. Turning on one channel we understand the action to be a blessing. Flipping to another channel, the same action is condemned as a curse.
Judgment is the ground over which arguments are fought. The stakes are the actions suggested by a judgment. Convincing another person that they should adopt the judgment you have taken from the context is important because it means that person will adopt the action or pattern of behavior you believe is right.
Decision and Action
The judgment we created in the interpretation step of the HIP cycle motivates or suggests a decision to be made. Action is taken as a test of the decision.
We make decisions and take action in an attempt to alter the state of the world. There is no purpose to information without action. If you can convince another person to adopt your judgment of the context, then you will implicitly motivate them to action on your behalf. This means that the future state of the world is what's at stake in an argument.
It's easy to see then why we get carried away with arguing. The future of the world will bend slightly toward our incentives if we win.
While actions influence the future state of the world, they would be transient if we did not learn from them. We encode the result of our actions, experience, as artifacts into the new context. An artifact can be shared with others, meaning they can inherit experience without repeating the judgments, decisions, and actions that were prerequisites to creation of the artifact.
The ability to share an artifact means that experience has a compounding effect. The original context that was used in the creation of the artifact can be lost without any loss of utility. As a result, the artifact has the capacity to persist through time. Highly useful artifacts are treasured, passing from generation to generation. Religious texts are artifacts with a high degree of utility, as they not only suggest specific actions for a range of contexts, but entire systems of behavior intended to assist the reader in leading a good life.
We have discussed how information leads to action and how action alters the state of the world.
Zooming out, we've determined:
How humans process information. Our minds continually produce actions and update the state of the world via the HIP Cycle.
Why we do it. Information is a required input to generate action. Action alters the state of the world.
What's at stake. Influence in all future contexts.
Now that we have a way of describing how a mind operates, we are equipped to discuss some of the implications:
Influence Attack Vectors
How your mind can be exploited and your behavior engineered
The types of information processing: utility, wisdom, manipulation, conspiracy theory
The difference between what we call "facts" and "truth"
How incentives affect judgment
How social cohesion is maintained
The impact of information on resources
I will discuss these and other topics in future posts. If you liked what you read please continue the discussion with me on twitter: @ptbrodie.