As we navigate through the world we develop mental models of reality that, among other things:

  • Help us to predict the way that the outside world will behave in response to various actions
  • Shapes how we interpret sensory data we perceive from the outside world
  • Generates our conception of self as something separate and distinct from the rest of the world

The below diagram from a paper published in Cell 1 illustrates how through these perceptual feedback loops we develop these mental models:

It seems implausible to me that, over the course of a single lifetime, and equipped with our limited sensory abilities2 and various prosthetics3 that an individual would be able to gather enough information to generate a mental model of the world that is so accurate that it would not be in need of continuous adjusting as new information comes in. There is simply too much relevant information that we either do not have the time or the tools necessary to capture.

Not only do we not have the tools necessary for developing a wholly accurate model, but I am also unconvinced that our nervous system even has the capacity to form an instantiation of an accurate model. The world is simply far more complex than our nervous system would allow us to account for.

Not only that, but we also cannot even instantiate an accurate part of the model because every aspect of reality is so interdependent with all the other parts that each missing piece would prove devastating to the overall functioning of the model. The mind, for how amazing it is, simply does not seem to have the requisite hardware to hold an accurate picture of reality. In lay terms, it seems that we don’t know shit and we can’t know shit.

That said, it seems evident, based on our continued existence, that the mind has the capacity to hold useful models that afford us the capacity to be in and interact with reality in a generally predictable fashion. These should not be confused with accurate models, but instead are analogs of parts of the system of reality, close enough as to offer us some resemblance of what is actually going on within an extremely limited scope. So what are we to do if the best we can generate are analogs? In this piece, I compare our mental models of the world to Plato’s “Allegory of the cave” and offer up an orientation towards how we can skillfully work around our limitations.

  1. Cleeremans et al., “Learning to Be Conscious.”
  2. Seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, feeling, knowing our internal experience
  3. e.g. informational (books, the internet), measurement (scales, sensors), sensory (microscopes, telescopes), etc.

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