Subjective Vision, Objective Evaluation

Go ahead – believe, dream, envision, get inspired, think big.

But then evaluate. Stop believing and take an objective look at what it’s actually going to take for your Big Idea to happen. Or if you already quit your day job, take the time for a good, hard, long, skeptical look at what’s actually happening. It might not be too late to grovel your way back.

I wish I’d done that. I never got out of the subjective phase – never achieved enough escape velocity to get free of belief. I was an elite believer – a professional’s professional. I know belief like a worthy foe — all its wily, fraudulent snares.

Beware the evaluation that never gets out of belief. Belief validates itself, admits no outside counsel. Belief doesn’t want data, doesn’t need to make a budget or do market research. Belief believes – that’s its only job, and it’s the best at it. If you want evaluation you’ll have to look elsewhere. Objective assessment –- rational thought, science — thrives on doubt. It begins with the assumption that whatever it has concluded is wrong and begs you to prove it. Not so with belief. Belief has a zero tolerance policy on doubt. To doubt is to not believe, by definition. Belief doesn’t want you to know, it wants you to… well, um, believe.

Belief has no ethics, subscribes to no code of conduct. It isn’t accountable, doesn’t answer to independent, unbiased assessment. It’s free to do what it likes.

Belief don’t need no stinking facts.

In the world of belief, there’s no such thing as “independent and unbiased.” Belief rewards its own, destroys its dissenters. The polarities of belief and knowledge repel each other — an attempted interaction between a rationalist and a believer never ends well. Belief has too much at stake – it must prevail or there’s no belief anymore – doubt will wipe it out. With belief there’s no recognizing the delegate from the opposite faction. Nobody but us, no case but ours. Fact-checkers? We’re not listening la la la la. Religious doctrine? Stay out of it, we know what’s true and you don’t. Clergy or politician misbehavior, moral lapses, illegalities? Boys will be boys — we’ll give ‘em a mulligan. Batshit conspiracy theories? Have at it – the more bizarre the better. Fake news? “Do your own research”? “Freedom”? Go for it – it’s your right.

I know these things because I’ve lived on both sides. I spent over two decades as an evangelical fundamentalist cultist Christian believer. When I first started drifting out, I became a self-helper, which turned out to be the exact same religion. Both were about belief. There was no reality other than what you believed. You took flight and never touched down. Nobody called you to account, they just cheered you on, chanted more, more, more, higher, higher, higher.

Nobody ever heard of Icarus.

Christianity claimed to be accountable to its source code the Bible, but that was a sham. I was a Protestant – the religion Martin Luther founded with his sola scriptura doctrine – everybody can and should and must read the Bible for what it says to them, and the religious authorities can keep their mitts off your personal revelation. That makes Protestantism unaccountable by definition. It’s up to you. Make it say what you want. No wonder there are so many fundie whack jobs out there.

I was one of them. I ought to know.

Fortunately, I haven’t ridden the pendulum to the other side, haven’t transferred the focus of my belief to rationalism or objectivity or any other legacy of the “Age of Enlightenment.” (Spare me! Aren’t we being a little pretentious with our title?) Rationalism’s most ardent advocates are just another kind of believer. Same with a lot of atheists, who are more obnoxiously evangelistic than we were back in the day. I’m an atheist myself, but I figured out early that I wasn’t going to make it a substitute religion.

Belief of any kind is a shut-down when it comes to evaluation. It’s incapable of objectivity. Evaluation is not its job. What’s it good for? Shooting our brains full of dopamine, which they love. Dopamine inspires us, gets us moving. Gives us dreams and visions. Makes us feel hopeful. Empowers us with a sense of meaning and purpose. Stuff like that. It’s hard to argue against a dopamine high. People love that shit. Okay, do it if you need to. Just don’t do what I did all those years – all those wasteful, addicted, self-sabotaging dopamine high years, all those years of following my believing dreams from one flameout to another.

When you ask, “How’s this going to work?” or “How’s this going?” don’t listen to belief’s opinion. If your friends share your beliefs, welcome and love them, but all of you need a shot of perspective. You won’t get it from somebody who’s super-critical and cynical either, because those are signals that you’re probably dealing with somebody who’s operating with the weakest and most deceptive form of thinking, which is belief masquerading as rationality.

No, instead, find people who don’t care — people who don’t need things to go one way or the other in order to convince themselves they are valid or alive. It’s okay if they think your ideas are cool, big, inspiring, whatever… but ultimately you don’t want them invested in whether your dreams and visions play out. Find people that if you crash and burn they might just turn and look away from the wreckage and leave you there to deal. If you’re going to listen to people, listen to people like that. They’re your friends – your real friends.

Same with facts and data and trends – they might be leaning in your direction, but they’re only numbers. Sit alone in a dark theater and repeat to yourself, “they’re only numbers, they’re only statistics” until you’re convinced, and then take another look at them. Beware your own perverse ability to make them speak your language, make them love you. If they fawn all over your idea, push them away. They’ll break your heart one day. It’s not worth the thrill in the meantime.

Detachment. That’s what you want. People who respect you (they have to respect you, or get out of there fast) but don’t need to like you or need you to like them. Inspect yourself, the people, and the data like you’re checking for tics, and if you find more than one, run screaming from the room. Scour speeches and articles and analyses for biases and assumptions and calculate how much they’re warping the results and conclusions. Calculate the naysayer’s score, then round it up – way up.

Go ahead and tell your friends and family. Be grateful for their support. They’re here for you. That counts. They’ll probably think you’re nuts – not a bad thing. They might be swayed by your belief. That’s nice. But unless they’re in it whatever it is — with you, not just for you, don’t ask for more. You’d be better off if you find out what your detractors think, and then shut them up. They won’t be convinced by your belief. They’ll want RealThink. They’ll give you a reality check. That’s what you want.

Especially don’t give any weight to idea people. Idea people go through life deflecting – a likeability habit which makes it seem like they’re engaging, but they’re not. Ideas are everywhere and always and inexhaustible – so plentiful and abundant that they’re worthless. What matters are ideas of substance and commitment — the ones where somebody backs them with action and money and whatever else they can, and only then do they say “I like your idea.”

Lastly, be cautious about the pivot. If you’re pivoting from one unsubstantiated belief to another, stop it.

Just stop it.


If you’re pivoting because you originally relied on data and research and information that maybe was good once but now things have changed and it’s a whole new world out there… then, yeah, go ahead and pivot. Just pivot into something with substance, not another inspirational belief dream wouldn’t-this-be-cool vision.

So follow your heart. Be a subjective visionary. Go for it. Make your dreams come true.

But then figure out how to deliver. Be an objective evaluator. What’s it going to take, what’s it going to cost? What’s it going to look like when you get there, and how will you know? What do you need to know that you don’t? How are you going to find out what you need to know that don’t know already – especially the stuff you don’t even know that you need to know it?

And when in doubt, sit down and wait until the dopamine high passes off. Better have the inspirational hangover first, before you embarrass and impoverish yourself again.

I ought to know. I made a life of it. Now I’m a recovered beliefaholic. I’m like a nonsmoker who used to do three packs a day – the most obnoxious kind of no-tolerance don’t-tempt-me skeptic. I’m for you, but I would spare you if I could.

But I probably can’t. You like the dope too much.

See you at our next meeting. Tuesday night. Methodist church basement.

How Impossible Becomes Possible

active nerve cell in human neural system


Scientific materialism explains a lot about how the brain creates consciousness, but hasn’t yet fully accounted for subjective awareness. As a result, the “hard problem” of consciousness remains unsolved, and we’re alternately urged to either concede that the human brain just isn’t ready to figure itself out, or conclude that reality is ultimately determined subjectively.

Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor Michael S. A. Graziano isn’t ready to do either. He thinks the “hard problem” label is itself the problem, because it cuts off further inquiry:

“Many thinkers are pessimistic about ever finding an explanation of consciousness. The philosopher Chalmers in 1995, put it in a way that has become particularly popular. He suggested that the challenge of explaining consciousness can be divided into two problems. One, the easy problem, is to explain how the brain computes and stores information. Calling this problem easy is, of course, a euphemism. What it meant is something more like the technically possible problem given a lot of scientific work.

“In contrast, the hard problem is to explain how we become aware of all that stuff going on in the brain. Awareness itself, the essence of awareness, because it is presumed to be nonphysical, because it is by definition private, seems to be scientifically unapproachable. Again, calling it the hard problem is a euphemism, it is the impossible problem.

“The hard-problem view has a pinch of defeatism in it. I suspect that for some people it also has a pinch of religiosity. It is a keep-your-scientific-hands-off-my-mystery perspective. In the hard problem view, rather than try to explain consciousness, we should marvel at its insolubility. We have no choice but to accept it as a mystery.

“One conceptual difficulty with the hard-problem view is that it argues against any explanation of consciousness without knowing what explanations might arise. It is difficult to make a cogent argument against the unknown. Perhaps an explanation exists such that, once we see what it is, once we understand it, we will find that it makes sense and accounts for consciousness.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. by Michael S. A. Graziano (2013).

I.e., if science is going to explain consciousness, it needs to reframe its inquiry, so that what is now an “impossible,” “scientifically unapproachable” problem becomes a “technically possible problem” that can be solved “given a lot of scientific work.”

Technology and innovation writer Steven Johnson describes how he thinks the impossible becomes possible in Where Good Ideas Come From — available as a TED talk. book, and animated whiteboard drawing piece on YouTube. In his TED talk, he contrasted popular subjective notions with what neuroscience has discovered about how the brain actually works:

“[We] have to do away with a lot of the way in which our conventional metaphors and language steer us towards certain concepts of idea-creation. We have this very rich vocabulary to describe moments of inspiration. We have … the flash of insight, the stroke of insight, we have epiphanies, we have ‘eureka!’ moments, we have the lightbulb moments… All of these concepts, as kind of rhetorically florid as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing, it’s something that happens often in a wonderful illuminating moment.

“But in fact, what I would argue is … that an idea is a network on the most elemental level. I mean, this is what is happening inside your brain. An idea — a new idea — is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It’s a new configuration that has never formed before. And the question is, how do you get your brain into environments where these new networks are going to be more likely to form?”

Johnson expands on the work of biologist and complex systems researcher Stuart Kauffman, who dubbed this idea the “adjacent possibility.” Adjacent possibility is where the brain’s neural networks (top picture above) meet data networks (the bottom picture):  neither is a static, closed environment; both are dynamic, constantly shifting and re-organizing, with each node representing a new point from which the network can expand. Thus the shift from unknown to known is always a next step away:

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

Vittorio Loreto and his colleagues at Sapienza University of Rome turned adjacent possibility into a mathematical model which they then submitted to objective, empirical, real world testing. As he said in his TED talk:

“Experiencing the new means exploring a very peculiar space, the space of what could be, the space of the possible, the space of possibilities.

“We conceived our mathematical formulation for the adjacent possible, 20 years after the original Kauffman proposals.

“We had to work out this theory, and we came up with a certain number of predictions to be tested in real life.”

Their test results suggest that adjacent possibility is good science — that impossible doesn’t step out of the ether, it waits at the edge of expanding neural networks, ready to become possible.[1] As Steven Johnson said above, that’s a far cry from our popular romantic notions of revelations, big ideas, and flashes of brilliance. We look more at those next time.

[1] For a nerdier version, see this Wired piece: The ‘Adjacent Possible’ of Big Data: What Evolution Teaches About Insights Generation.